Asia, a continent marked by persecution and martyrdom
by Gerolamo Fazzini

"John the Baptist's heroic example reminds us of the martyrs of the faith who, over the centuries, courageously followed in his footsteps. Even today believers are subject to hardships in many parts of the world for following Christ and His Church," the Pope said yesterday, the day devoted to the memory of the precursor of all martyrs.

In a world too self-absorbed, where faith is out of fashion and making the ultimate sacrifice is seen as something anachronistic, a world in which even some Christians forget their persecuted brethren, John Paul II spoke during the Angelus of those Christians who are still paying with their blood the heavy price that comes with their faith.

Figures back what the Pope has been saying since the 1995 Encyclical Ut unum sint. We are indeed living another age of martyrs. In at least 40 countries Christians have died a violent death for their beliefs. Martyrdom has gone global touching all continents and all sorts of cultural environments. What is happening in Asia confirms the trend.

The worst situation for Christ's followers is found in Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan Christians are literally second class citizens hampered by discriminatory practices. Case in point: the fate of Indian Catholic Brian Savio O'Connor who has been languishing in prison in Riyadh for six months for allegedly "preaching Christianity" (see AsiaNews' coverage of the case).

Recent political changes at the top of India's Union government have brought hope that the fate of Christians in the country might improve after years of repeated attacks by Hindu fundamentalists. However, more recent attacks in Orissa and other eastern Indian states leave little room for optimism.

In most of the 8 predominantly-Buddhist countries of Asia followers of Christ face an uphill battle as well, this according to the 2004 Aid to the Church in Need Report. Only Thailand affords substantial freedom to all religious denominations. By contrast, Vietnam persecutes every religion, including Buddhism. Between the two extremes final judgement is suspended, especially in countries like Sri Lanka (where parliament is debating an anti-conversion bill that would especially penalise Christians), Myanmar and Cambodia.

In Communist regimes public expression of religious faith is either heavily constrained by government interference or altogether banned.

In North Korea Christianity is represented by small groups of mostly Protestant believers who have been frequently subjected to long stays in "re-education camps". Owning a Bible is a crime punishable with relatively long sentences. In Laos the government has been trying to make the country a Christian-free zone accusing Christianity of being a "foreign imperialist religion". In the People's Republic of China religious rights are protected . . . on paper. In reality, rules and regulations governing the enforcement of such rights are open to arbitrary interpretations and effectively denied by overzealous government officials. Religious material is confiscated and "troublesome" figures (bishops, priests, laity) sent off to prison.

Politicians should uphold the principle that freedom of religion is an inalienable right and not a privilege granted by a benevolent state.