Religious Liberty in Asia (1)

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 first installment that deals with Asia. Subsequent excerpts will appear in the coming days.


After decades of military occupation and civil war, Afghanistan in 2005 swore in its first legally elected parliament since 1969. There do not appear to be any reports of real violations of freedom of worship. But a number of local and international analysts denounce problems as far as establishing a real democracy is concerned, if the country continues to use the Shariah as its juridical basis, a system that has the death sentence for those abandoning Islam.

On Oct. 18 the Afghans voted for the Wolesi Jirga (Parliament's lower house) and for the 34 Provincial Councils. The elections, with a turnout of 53% of voters, were the end of the process started in 2001 with the Bonn Agreement that brought Hamid Karzai to assume to role of president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, in 2004, the promulgation of the new constitution.

Parliament was sworn in Dec. 19 and has 351 members, including 68 women.

In a country that is almost totally Muslim, proselytism by other religions is considered to be against Islam, which the constitution defines as being the state religion. It states that "believers from other religions are free to profess and practice their faith within the limits established by the law."

The fact that the constitution also establishes that the Shariah is the source of legislation, clashes with the country's commitment to respect basic human rights. The Catholic chapel inside the Italian Embassy in Kabul is still the only non-Islamic place of worship officially recognized in the whole country.

Positive signals were seen in the course of the year allowing one to hope in the opening of a "public" church and of the establishing of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and the Holy See which are currently nonexistent.


According to some religious leaders and activists for the defense of human rights, in the course of 2005 the situation experienced by minority religious groups has improved in Azerbaijan, with less pressure on them from state authorities.

No problems have been reported as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. On Sept. 12 -- as reported by the APCom press agency on that same day -- the first stone was laid for the building of what is to be the first Catholic Church in Azerbaijan after the fall of the communist regime.

In spite of the generally calm situation as far as freedom of worship is concerned, there have been intimidating episodes -- with at times real incursions by the police forces -- aimed at minority religious groups, especially with regards to activities outside places of worship.


On Feb. 19 the Ashura festivity was celebrated without any problems by the country's Shiite community. The police patrolled the streets in the capital Manama to guarantee peaceful conditions for the processions.

On the night of Dec. 25, the authorities at Manama airport arrested for a few hours the ayatollah Mohammad al-Sanad who was returning from the holy city of Qom, where he teaches.


In 2005 there was a significant increase in Islamic extremism in Bangladesh, denounced by a human rights group and by the international media. Freedom of worship is experiencing a difficult period because the government gives in to pressure coming from Islamic extremist groups and is an accomplice in the discrimination and violence addressed at minorities.

The terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005, in London and later attacks on mosques that took place in Great Britain caused the police in Dacca to discuss serious security measures with the representatives of the Christian communities, to protect religious buildings from any eventual reprisals. The threat posed by Islamic militants obliged them to cancel midnight Mass -- brought forward to the evening of Dec. 24 -- and also New Year celebrations in the Parish of Santo Rosario, the largest in the Archdiocese of Dacca.

A positive event was reported on April 6, 2005, on the occasion of the death of Pope John Paul II, when national mourning was announced and for the first time in this country all flags were flown at half-mast for a Christian religious leader.

In 2005 a number of Christians paid the price of their faith with their lives. As reported by the Compass Direct new agency, on July 27, 2005, two Protestants working for an international nongovernmental organization were assassinated. Tapan Kumar Roy, 27, and Liplal Mardi, 21, were evangelists working for Christian Life Bangladesh in the village of Dhopapara, in the Faridpur district.

Attacks increased in 2005 and for the first time there were also suicide terrorist attacks. Hundreds of dynamite attacks were carried out in the course of the year. In spite of the efforts made by authorities and increased inspections by the Rapid Action Battalion, a special national task force, and in 10 districts in the southwest at least 175 bombs exploded killing 13 people and wounding 100.

According to the International Crisis Group in Bangladesh there are about 64,000 Koranic schools, compared with the 4,100 existing in 1986. Mohammad Kamruzzaman, assistant to the secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, described this increase as "the normal development of the education system" and declared in midyear that the idea of a fundamentalist Bangladesh is hyped by neighboring countries such as India, "wishing to destabilize the country."

Persecution of the Ahmadis, who the extremists wish to totally uproot from the community because they consider them heretics due to their non-acknowledgment of Mohammed as the last prophet, is also part of the attempt to promote Islamic orthodoxy.


Christians in Bhutan have suffered restrictions to freedom of worship since 2000, when the government authorities established that non-Buddhist public cults were illegal. Violations of this law are punishable with arrest, and proselytism is also illegal because of the anti-conversion state policies that many Christians challenge.

The state finances the building of Buddhist temples, while other confessions must obtain government authorization to build a place of worship.

Christians are also forbidden from celebrating or praying in public, and priests are not given entry visas for this country. Rigid security measures against evangelization were imposed when a number of Protestant ministers started evangelization activities that led to a number of conversions.

The AsiaNews agency collected a number of testimonies on the subject of the Buddhist cultural hegemony. Hinduism does have a sort of official recognition, but in effect the Buddhist monks try to obstruct rituals and ceremonies.


In Brunei the constitution states that Salafite Islam is the state religion and forbids other religions to carry out proselytism activities and non-Salafite Islamic missionaries as well as those belonging to other religions to operate in the national territory.

There are believers of other faiths in the country -- among them ethnic Chinese and about 20,000 Filipino immigrant workers who are mainly Catholics -- who practice their religion in places of worship not recognized by the state.

Only in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan does the state recognize non-Muslim places of worship; all functions, however, must be public and authorized. At the end of January the Catholic Church experienced a historic moment with the ordination of the country's first bishop, the then 53-year-old Cornelius Sim, consecrated by Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio.