Religious Liberty in Asia (3)

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

* * *


At the end of 2005 the Statistics Department in Israel published updated data on the number of Christians living in the country. Including Jerusalem, but not the occupied Palestinian territories, there appear to be 146,000, of whom 119,000 belong to the national Arab minority. Some 27,000 are not Arabs, but rather citizens who have mainly emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

On Nov. 17, receiving a visit from President Moshe Katzav, Benedict XVI said that the Holy See is "in favor of the existence and of cooperation between the two states, Israel and Palestine," also requesting respect of the agreements establishing the acknowledgment of the Catholic Church in Israel as a juridical body.

The Vatican's statement bears witness to the fact that relations between the Holy See and Israel are returning to acceptable levels after the controversy raised by Israel in 2004 when the country accused Benedict XVI of not including Israel among the victims of terrorism.

Palestinian National Authority

In the territories controlled by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Christians experience a far more serious situation.

On Dec. 8, Bethlehem's Catholic mayor, Victor Batarseh, accused both the PNA of not having provided the city with necessary funds for preparing Christmas celebrations, and Israel of being responsible for the "heavy" atmosphere caused by the establishment of new Israeli checkpoints around the city.


Many political and economic factors ensure that in Kazakhstan there is an atmosphere of freedom of worship.

About one-third of the population is Orthodox; Kazak mystical Islam is not extremist; quality of life is better than in neighboring countries as it benefits from more foreign capital and investments.

Two religious festivities have been allowed: Christmas, according to the Orthodox calendar, and Kurbanaid, the Muslim festivity of sacrifice (Eid).

In the name of the state's totally secular status, Kazakhstan had never accepted the celebration of religious festivities, but only "political" dates such as victory in World War II and May 1, following the Soviet mentality.

In 2005, legislation became harsher with regards to national security issues, with consequences for religious legislation that until 2004 had been very tolerant.

Islamic and Orthodox representatives did not seem concerned about the introduction of these new laws; on the contrary they emphasized the positive aspects.


Usama Mansur al-Sayegh was appointed the director of Shiite religious property (awqaf) for the General Secretariat of the Awqaf in Kuwait in January. This appointment -- as reported by the daily newspaper al-Ray al-Aaam -- is part of the Shiite community's organization, although the new director stated that 85% of this public institute's projects concern both Sunnis and Shiites.

The authorities, as reported by a Shiite Web site, arrested a terrorist planning attacks against Shiite mosques. Led by two Kuwaitis, this terrorist was said to be linked to al-Qaida.

An international conference entitled "The Middle Way, a Lifestyle," held in Kuwait City on May 25, 2005, emphasized the importance of spreading moderate Islam.

The conference was inaugurated by the minister for religious heritage and Islamic affairs, who stated that the concept of freedom of worship is stated in the Koran and that God has given human beings the faculty to believe or not believe.

To confront the spreading of extremism, added the minister, one must encourage a culture of tolerance and the respect of cultural and religious pluralism through a reform of the school curriculum and establishing new rules for the issuing of juridical opinions (fatwas).


Although the constitution guarantees freedom of worship, the socialist regime in Laos imposes many restrictions, such as a law that forbids all activities that might lead to divisions between citizens.

The situation is very serious for the Hmong ethic group as the government that does not even acknowledge their status as citizens. Monsignor Tito Bachong Thopahong, responsible for the Apostolic Vicariate of Luang Prabang and pastor among the Hmongs, has often been arrested by the regime.

In April the Compass Direct news agency reported that a group of Christians belonging to the Bru ethnic group were arrested, tortured and obliged to recant their faith.


For Lebanon 2005 was a year of political events, beginning with that assassination on Feb. 14 of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

At the end of April 2005 the Syrian troops withdrew -- thanks to pressure applied by the U.N. Security Council and the mobilization of Christian, Sunni and Druze opposition forces.

The country then began an international investigation into the murder of Hariri, allowed General Michel Aoun to return from exile and released Samir Geagea from prison. Lebanon also held the first free elections in decades.

Numerous intellectuals and politicians were murdered -- among them Samir Kassir, George Hawi and Gebran Tueni -- accused of having led the protest movement that put an end to Syria's domination of the country.

Attacks were carried out in Christian areas and against Christian institutions with the intent of spreading religious hatred among the Lebanese.


In the Maldives the 1997 constitution establishes that Islam is the state religion. The government respects the Shariah and interprets the constitutional provision in the sense that all citizens must be Muslims and civil law is subordinated to Koranic law.

There is a Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs that is competent on religious issue and the president and government ministers must be Sunni Muslims.

The practice of all other religions is forbidden by the law. Foreigners may practice their religion only in the home and without inviting locals to participate. The conversion of a Muslim to another faith is a violation of the Shariah and can lead to loss of citizenship.


Inherited from British dominion, the constitution of Malaysia guarantees full freedom of worship. But it emphasizes that "no one can receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of cult of a religion that is not his own" and that "the religion of a person under the age of 18 must be decided by the parents or guardians."

The constitution guarantees everyone the right to change religion, but declares that Islam is the state religion.

An individual of the Malay ethic group is defined as "a person professing Islam, speaking the national language and practicing its culture." Those who recant lose their civil rights. Apostasy is considered one of the most serious sins by Islam and, according to the Koran and the Sunna, punishable with death.

The government restricts the application of articles encouraging freedom of worship above all for non-Muslims.

There are about 15,000 Malaysians who would like to freely express their Christian faith.


In Mongolia freedom of worship is recognized by the constitution; religious groups must register with the authorities and the government can limit the number of religious buildings or priests allowed. In 2005, however, there were no reports of interventions of this kind.

Religious instruction is not permitted in state schools.


Violation of freedom of worship and all human rights is systematic in Myanmar (Burma) and affects equally Christians, Muslims and in some cases even Buddhists.

In the mid 1960s almost all foreign missionaries were expelled and all schools and hospitals managed by them were nationalized when General Ne Win came to power.

Buddhists enjoy a privileged status, but the regime does not allow them any freedom of practice. Buddhist monks and nuns are controlled at all times, and those who criticize the government are arrested. A few hundred already have been imprisoned for 15 to 20 years.

Muslims too continue to be persecuted by the military, in particular those who in the state of Rakhine belong to the Rohingya minority group. They are denied citizenship and the government has confiscated their properties and destroyed their crops and their homes.


The constitution of Nepal guarantees religious practice, but forbids proselytism. The violation of this law is punishable with administrative sanctions, arrest or -- for foreigners -- expulsion.

On Feb. 1 King Gyanendra dismissed the prime minister and assumed total power, with the objective of isolating the Maoist rebels who wish to impose Marxist-like policies and establish a secular state.

Among the first decisions taken by the king -- who has guaranteed a return to normality within three years -- was the suspension of all civil rights, including freedom of expression.

The constitution defines the country as a Hindu kingdom.


For Pakistan 2005 was characterized by a dramatic rise in attacks against religious minorities. The Human Rights Commission, a nongovernmental organization working for the respect of the rights of minorities, defined the year as "the absolutely worst year for the country's entire non-Muslim population."

Religious repression is implemented mainly through the law on blasphemy which sites offenses against the Koran as punishable with life imprisonment, and establishes death or life imprisonment for slander addressed at the prophet Mohammed.

The government also reintroduced religion on the country's passports.

In 2004 the government abolished this heading for religion to adapt passports to international law as established by the International Organization for Civilian Aviation, only to give in to pressure from Islamic groups to reintroduce the explicit mention of a person's religion so as to "safeguard the Islamic identity" of the country.

In a Sunni majority Islamic country such as Pakistan, there is ferocious persecution against the Ahmadis who declare that they are Muslims, but are considered heretics since they do not acknowledge Mohammed as the last prophet.


For the third year running Qatar hosted the "Meeting of religions" in which more than 100 Muslim and Christian, and for the first time, Jewish delegates participated.

At the end of the conference, a shared document was drafted that reflected the sincere shared will to "coexist."

The participants expressed the hope that an Arab institute would be created that rejected the "false theories" speaking of "controversies between religions."

The conference ended with a speech by Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar, in which he renewed his government's commitment to a shared existence between all the faithful of monotheistic religions and expressed the hope that an International Center for interreligious dialogue would be founded.


In Singapore the constitution recognizes freedom of worship, understood as the right of each person to profess, practice and proselytize their own faith, on condition they do not create problems to public order and public health and morality. All religious groups must register as established by the Societies Act.

The state maintains formal relations with the Islamic community through the Islamic Religious Council that replaces the government for a number of issues that concern Muslims, such as the building of mosques or fund raising.

There are no restrictions imposed on missionary activities, but religious instruction is not permitted in state schools, and religious groups are not permitted to undertake political activities.

In spite of the ban imposed in 1972, the Jehovah's Witnesses -- at the time about 200 -- are currently no fewer than 2,000.

In 1996 a sentence by the Court of Appeal defended their right to profess and spread their faith, although as a group they remain illegal and public meetings are forbidden.

Since 1996 those attending meetings in private homes are no longer prosecuted. At the end of 2005 there were 16 believers still in prison due to their refusal to do compulsory military service, for which they were sentenced to 15 months in prison, followed by another 24 months for a second refusal.


In Syria the repercussions of the assassination in Bayreuth on Feb. 14, 2005, of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, reached Damascus.

Five years after succeeding his father, President Bashar al-Assad saw the foundations of his regime tremble.

Christians followed with apprehension the developments of a situation filled with uncertainty, and feared they would one day suffer the same destiny as their Iraqi co-religionists.

The number of refugees arriving in the country increased, most of them Christians arriving from Iraq.

On April 7 President Bashar al-Assad headed an official delegation that attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

The daily newspaper Teshrin published on the front page a photograph of John Paul II in the Golan, and in its leading article remembered the Pontiff's great religious charisma and his constant work for peace throughout the world.

Sri Lanka

In spite of its new government, the situation of freedom of worship in Sri Lanka seems stationary.

Two draft laws against so-called forced conversions are still under discussion and the new prime minister is one of the most serious promoters of these laws.

2005 continued to see attacks against Christian objectives within the framework of the general campaign that since 2003 has been trying to introduce measures to stem Christian influence in the country.

During the presidential election campaign in November, requests presented by the Buddhist monks' party for an amendment to the constitution to be made, declaring Buddhism the state religion, became more pressing.

The Catholic Church and the other religious communities did not remain inactive and on many occasions clearly expressed their requirements for full religious freedom and peace to all candidates.

In the eyes of Nationalistic Buddhists, the Christians are guilty of ruining the country's "century-old harmony."

To be noted is the profound cooperation with which the country's various communities dealt with the tsunami tragedy at the end of 2004.


In Thailand no changes have been reported as far as freedom of worship is concerned and it remains one of the Asian states in which interreligious coexistence is best.

2005 was once again marked by violence in the Muslim majority southern provinces, an area that has seen conflict between separatists and the government.

Although the revolt is a political one, is often affects the Buddhist community, identified with central power. Although the situation has not improved, the clashes have never assumed the characteristics of an interreligious conflict.

East Timor

The government in East Timor continues to guarantee freedom of worship, recognized by the constitution approved in 2002.

From a political point of view there have been developments in relations with the former occupying power, bordering Indonesia. In February the United Nations -- which supported the island's independence with a referendum held in 1999 -- announced the extension of its peace mission there by one year.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan explained that East Timor still needs international help in controlling its borders with Indonesia, training its police force, and in supporting democracy and the respect of human rights.

The Catholic religion and the fact that its instruction is compulsory in state schools, has been the object of public debate in recent years. In February the government abolished the hour of religion from study courses and added it as an optional extra-educational subject.


Led since independence by Saparmurad Niyazov, considered one of the eight most ruthless dictators in the world, Turkmenistan has for some time suffered a lack of political, social and religious freedom.

In Turkmenistan the telephones and the Internet are tapped. Television and the radio only provide state information.

No progress has been made by the state to recognize the Armenian Catholic Church, one of the largest religious communities.

In mid-April 2005 the Catholic community presented a registration request, but the request was rejected. The officials from the Ministry of Justice stated that the request was rejected because the named leader of the community was not a Turkmen citizen.

Catholics are allowed to celebrate Mass only within the diplomatic territory of the Ashgabad Nunciature.

The Armenian ambassador to Turkmenistan has tried on various occasions to regain possession of its historical church in Turkmenbashi, the only Armenian church to have survived the Soviet period and now almost in a state of total decay, but has not succeeded.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have also been the victims of persecution.


Legislation in Uzbekistan also contains many restrictions imposed on freedom of worship, and this is also caused by the need to prevent, in this largely Muslim country, the spreading and taking root of Islamic extremism.

Non-registered religious activities are illegal and believers are often punished even if they meet to pray or meditate in private homes.

Missionary activities are forbidden. A state license is required for teaching religion and religious literature is censured by the government and imports of such material are forbidden.

All religious communities are controlled by the authorities, especially Islamic ones. Muslims who are members of non-registered groups are treated especially harshly, arrested and reported, accused of "having moved against the state's constitutional principles" or "having created a criminal organization."

The situation is also difficult for the Jehovah's Witnesses, arrested and fined frequently, accused of having illegally been involved in proselytism or religious instruction.


In 2005 Vietnam was characterized by the coming into force of the new law of religious policies -- with mixed consequences for the communities of believers -- and by novelties in relations between the communist regime and the Holy See.

Persecution of the faithful of all confessions is still widespread, however. According to some analysts this is more of a local issue than an attitude established by top government levels, but the result is always ferocious repression, especially against the leaders of communities in the central areas of the country.

The new law -- entitled "Ordinance on religion and religious beliefs" -- was approved by the Permanent Committee of the National Vietnamese Assembly on June 18, 2004, and became effective on Nov. 15 the same year amid criticism from Catholics, Buddhists, Caodaists and Protestants.

The Holy See and Vietnam do not have diplomatic relations, but for a number of years have established a "modus vivendi" allowing them to at least partly overcome most of the problems experienced by Vietnamese Catholics.

There is, however, on the horizon a positive evolution that may lead to establishing diplomatic relations between Rome and Hanoi; in July 2005 the Holy See expressed "the hope that they would move quickly" toward a "normalization" of relations.

Persecution against the Montagnards, the ethnic group inhabiting Vietnam's central highlands and mainly Christians, showed no signs of abating.

In 2005 the unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam -- the CUBY, not recognized by the government -- reported increased repression with monks arrested or threatened, believers closely supervised and repeated slandering of its morality by government press.


At the end of 2004, the president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh -- during a meeting with Pope John Paul II -- stated that his government was "an open-minded government and one ready to live in peace with all religions."

Nonetheless, the Shiite news agency al-Ibaa, in a report dated Jan. 27, 2005, reported the presidential decree that forbade the celebration of the al-Ghadir Shiite holiday in the city of Saada, and in all the country's provinces.

This holiday, celebrated by the Zaydite Shiites, commemorates Mohammed's invocation for Ali, his son-in-law, and the first Shiite imam.

The al-Sahwa Web site reported a large mobilization of security forces that are said to have ordered the Saasi population to close all shops.