Religious Liberty in Asia (2)

Vatican City - Here is an adapted excerpt from a report by the charity Aid to the Church in Need on religious freedom.

This is the second installment dealing with Asia. Subsequent excerpts will appear in the coming days.


Article 43 of the constitution in Cambodia guarantees freedom of worship, which is generally respected and defended by the government.

The Catholic Church's relations with the government are quite good, as witnessed by the sovereign's participation in Mass celebrated for the repose of the soul of Pope John Paul II.

Increased nationalism, however -- strictly linked to Buddhism, the state religion -- has resulted recently in persecutions against Christians. The authorities also fear a number of Muslim groups receiving funds from abroad.

In the course of 2005 there have been serious violations of human rights, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has been accused of moving toward a military dictatorship like the one in Myanmar.


2005 saw China's attempt to appear fully legal in its attitude to religious expression in the eyes of the international community.

On March 1 the New Regulations (NR) for religious activities were passed. This, however, did not prevent the government from arresting believers and religious personnel; from torturing members of various communities; destroying or confiscating places of worship, as well as forbidding the young from attending schools, imposing restrictions or forbidding contact and movement within the country and abroad.

Many religious communities are waiting for official recognition from the authorities: the Orthodox Christian communities, the Bahais, the Jews and the Mormons.

According to statistics provided by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Department of Propaganda, about 20 million of the 60 million members of the Communist Party believe in a faith, and about 10 million regularly attend churches or temples.

In an attempt to oppose the religious surge within its ranks, the CCP has launched a campaign to spread atheism using the radio, television, the Internet and university seminaries. It also financed a $25.5 million campaign to revitalize the growth of Marxism.

Among the underground religious communities, the most targeted area is Hebei, where there are more than 1.5 million Catholics.

Bishop Giulio Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding, in Hebei province, was periodically kidnapped by the police during 2005. Bishop Jia was arrested in January, July and November, and is now held at a secret location.

Before and after the death of Pope John Paul II, the police arrested various bishops, priests and secular people belonging to the underground Church. In particular, Auxiliary Bishop Yao Liang of Xiwanzi was arrested March 31, 2005.

Relations with the Holy See have been characterized by inconsistency and ambiguity.

During the last days of John Paul II, a spokesman for the Foreign Office expressed best wishes for the Pontiff's health. The government, however, did not send a representative to the Pope's funeral, nor did the Patriotic Association allow a delegation to attend.

In the months that followed the election of Benedict XVI, a number of groups of priests and secular Chinese arrived in Rome to greet the Pope during public audiences, but it was later discovered that the Patriotic Association had not been informed about these meetings.

In 2005 the unofficial Protestant churches were at the center of a campaign addressed at eliminating them, also involving the arrest of their ministers.

In November, U.S. President George Bush visited China, and participated in a liturgical service held at the official Protestant church in Gangwashi.


Control over Tibetan Buddhism continued throughout 2005 with arrests, torture and sentencing. The majority of Muslims are concentrated in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. They belong to the Uighur ethnic group that originated in Turkey.

China justifies this violence as the battle against Islamic terrorism. Yet, the United Nations and various international human rights organizations have condemned the manipulation of the battle against terrorism.

Persecution of the Falun Gong began after April 25, 1999, when over 10,000 followers protested peacefully in Beijing against the violation of their rights. Since then, the Falun Gong has reported over 38,000 cases of imprisonment, torture and death.

In April 2005 the Falun Gong reported numerous arrests in the provinces of Shandong, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia.

On Nov. 21 Manfred Novak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, arrived in China for a 12-day visit to verify the use of torture in prisons. The last visit addressing this issue dates back to the early 1990s.

Novak visited a number of Chinese prisons, among them Lhasa (the capital of Tibet), Urumqi and Yining, in Northern Xinjiang, inhabited by the Uighurs who are mainly Muslims.

In a press conference held at the end of his visit, Novak said that the use of torture is widespread in China, and many trials are not fair.

North Korea

In North Korea freedom of worship is often violently suffocated. The only cult allowed in the country is that of the leader Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung. The regime tries to obstruct the presence of Buddhists and Christians in particular.

Ever since the communist regime came to power in 1953, about 300,000 Christians have disappeared. There are now about 80,000 prisoners in work camps who suffer hunger, torture and even death.

The figure in 2004 was 100,000, but the reason why the numbers have fallen is unclear.

Former North Korean officials and ex-prisoners have stated that the Christians in re-educational camps or prisons are treated far worse than other prisoners.

AsiaNews reported on April 5, 2005, that the regime allowed "official" North Korean Catholics -- hence those belonging to the registered association controlled by the government authorities -- to join the rest of the world in praying for the repose of the soul of Pope John Paul II.

South Korea

In South Korea the constitution guarantees freedom of worship and the government respects it, although it has not yet managed to solve the problem of conscientious objection.

According to data provided by the Armed Forces Administration, in 2004 Jehovah's Witnesses amounted to about 99% of the 755 young people imprisoned for refusing to do their military service. At the beginning of 2005 there were 758 people in prison for this reason.

Religious instruction is not allowed in state schools, while private schools are free to offer religious activities.

United Arab Emirates

According to a report published in the international magazine Oasis-al-Waha, Bishop Paul Hinder of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia, spoke of St. Mary's Church in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where 30,000 took part in the celebrations for the Holy Week.

"All the Christians are immigrants or are here because of their jobs," he said. "There are many Arab-speaking Catholics among them who belong to Christian minorities in the Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq. …

"As in the other Emirates, Christians in Dubai enjoy freedom of worship within the parish compound, consisting in the church and other buildings."


In the Philippines the constitution guarantees freedom of worship and this is respected by the government.

At the beginning of January 2005 the police foiled a suicide attack on the religious procession planned for Jan. 9 in Manila.

The following Feb. 3 there was a massacre in Jolo, defined by Catholics in the South as "a very serious blow to hope for peace in this region," and very dangerous because "every incident can now spark off a religious war."


In Japan the constitution recognizes freedom of worship and the government respects this right. Religious organizations are not required to register, but recognition as religious groups does involve tax exemptions and other benefits.

Trials continued against the leader and other members of the Supreme Truth group, now called Aleph.

The religious movement's leaders were found guilty of a series of attacks perpetrated between 1995 and 1996, among them a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995, which killed 12 people and affected more than 5,500.

In December the Court acquitted Naruhito Noda, considered one of Shoko's closest disciples, for the massacre in the Tokyo subway and sentenced him to 18 months in prison, finding him guilty only of "having sold illegal drugs to obtain funds for the sect."

The government considers the members of Aleph not as the believers of a religion, but as terrorists.

Although the leaders proclaim the movement's peaceful characteristics, since 2000 the minister of justice has ordered that all members must be closely supervised for at least three years starting from the day of their leader being sentenced to death.

At the end of 2005 the investigative agency for public safety asked this period to be extended for an additional three years. The agency still considers the sect dangerous since its doctrine allows murder.

The group, which had had up to 15,000 members, now has 1,650 in Japan and 300 in Russia.


In Jordan the monarchy's institutions basically guarantee the respect of freedom of worship for the minority groups, but opposes Islamic extremism.

King Abdallah II said during the congress held by the Organization of Islamic Conferences in Amman in May 2005 that "Islam invites people to harmony and coexistence also with the faithful of other religions, just as the Jews and the Christians do," reported AsiaNews.


In India 2005 was characterized by a significant increase in attacks against Christian communities and also a deterioration of relations between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority.

This phenomenon can be blamed on the attitude assumed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- the largest Indian political party, with nationalist Hinduist characteristics -- and by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) -- a paramilitary group of Hindu extremists and considered the BJP’s armed wing. After the sound defeat suffered in the 2004 general elections, they launched a campaign of intimidation and of "rebirth of national pride" to conquer the presidency of each individual state.

In 2005 there were about 200 attacks against Catholics.

Last August the government decided to draft a report on the social, economic and cultural conditions of Muslim minorities in the country, taking into account the number Muslims in the various Indian states, the female condition, child mortality, professional employment and access to public services.


Terrorism and Islamic extremism, characterized by local political conflicts and personal interests, has been a real obstacle to guaranteeing freedom of worship in Indonesia.

The capture of one of the most important terrorists in Southeast Asia led to the discovery of plans aimed at attacking Catholic Churches over Christmas.

Islamic extremists continue to use force to close down churches and prevent the building of new ones.

In the Sulawesi and Moluccas provinces the murder of Christians has not stopped and the authorities do not do enough to clarify the reasons for this.

On Oct. 1 three suicide attackers killed 25 people in a tourist area in Bali. No group claimed responsibility for this attack but suspicion fell on the Jemaah Islamiah, the extremist network presumed to be linked to al-Qaida and operating in Southeast Asia.

In addition to expressing their condemnation, most people emphasized their disapproval of all terrorism in the name of religion.

Following the video statements left by the Bali attackers, the authorities decided it necessary to correct "the mistaken interpretation of jihad" promoted by the terrorists.

In the videos the attackers seemed convinced they would obtain a "ticket to paradise" with their actions.

At the end of 2005 public security sources in Jakarta warned of the existence of at least 3,000 Indonesians ready to carry out suicide and terrorist attacks all over the archipelago.

The government allocated new funds for the building of 144 places of worship destroyed between 1999 and 2002 in the conflict between Christians and Muslims.


Radical candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the presidential elections -- in office since Aug. 3 -- has once again led to a return of repression in Iran.

A long report published in the international magazine Oasis analyzes in detail the situation experienced by the various Christian communities.

"The fall in the number of Christians," explains Archbishop Ramzi Garmou, Chaldean archbishop of Tehran, "is caused by the lower birthrate among Christians, but above all by emigration that has accelerated after the Islamic revolution and the war on Iraq."

In April 2005, President Mohammed Khatami attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II. A requiem Mass was also celebrated in Iran and attended by authorities such as the president of the Parliament. At the Hosseiniyeh Ershad mosque in Tehran, well-known liberal personalities, many in the past imprisoned for their reformist ideas, attended a ceremony to commemorate John Paul II.

Common law applies the death sentence to those trying to convert Muslims to another religious faith.


The Parliament in Iraq formed by the general elections held Jan. 30, 2005, is composed of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition under the aegis of the grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the alliance of Kurdish parties, and the Shiite party led by the ad interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Sunni political parties that took part in the elections won 10 seats.

Minority groups are still perplexed about the text of the new constitution -- especially on the subject of the right to freedom of worship.

Chaldean-rite Auxiliary Bishop Andreas Abouna of Baghdad pointed out the obstacles present in the text which states that "no laws may be approved that are in contradiction with the laws of Islam."

Chaldean-rite Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk expressed his cooperation with Iraqi Muslims, but said that the application of the Shariah in the new constitution is incompatible with the objectives of democracy.

President Talal Jalabani said in a meeting Nov. 10 with Benedict XVI that "Islamic law will have no place in the constitution," and that "Christians have the same rights as all other citizens." He added that the work undertaken by the Holy See in this country is important for peace "because it provides moral and spiritual comfort to all Iraqis."

AsiaNews reported that in August-October 2004 some 10,000 to 40,000 Christians fled Iraq.

Shiite Muslims suffer unprecedented attacks by Sunnis, often with military support from elements belonging to al-Qaida and the former Baath government party.