Hong Kong - The United States has issued its annual report on religious freedom around the world, taking particular aim at repression and crackdowns in China, North Korea and Myanmar. China shot back that the report was “full of prejudice, arrogance and ignorance.”
“More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in remarks summarizing the new report.
“New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising.”
In terms of religious freedom as a human right, she said, “the world is sliding backwards.”
The report noted a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, “manifested in Holocaust denial, glorification, and relativism; conflating opposition to certain policies of Israel with blatant anti-Semitism; growing nationalistic movements that target ‘the other’; and traditional forms of anti-Semitism, such as conspiracy theories, acts of desecration and assault, ‘blood libel,’ and cartoons demonizing Jews.”
Four Asian countries — China, Myanmar, North Korea and Uzbekistan — were among eight nations designated by the State Department as “countries of particular concern” on religious freedom.
The China section of the new report found “a marked deterioration during 2011 in the government’s respect for and protection of religious freedom.”
It cited tightened restrictions on Buddhist clergy and worship in Tibet and Tibetan areas, saying, “Official interference in the practice of these religious traditions exacerbated grievances and contributed to at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans in 2011.”
From the report’s separate section on Tibet: “There were numerous and severe abuses of religious freedom, including religious prisoners and detainees. Monasteries were increasingly forbidden to deliver traditional educational and medical services to the people of their communities, and official intimidation was used to compel acquiescence and preserve a facade of stability.”
Beijing continued to “severely repress Muslims” living in the Xinjiang region, and there were further crackdowns on Christian house churches, according to the report.
China issued a biting response on Tuesday, saying the U.S. report continued “a notorious practice of blatantly interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, including China, in the name of religion.” A slightly condensed excerpt from the response, published as a commentary by the official news agency Xinhua:
The annual report, largely based on unconfirmed media reports and groundless allegations from outlawed groups and organizations with ulterior motives, is nothing but a political tool used by the U.S. government to exert pressure on other countries, mostly deemed as its rivals.
The U.S. practice of releasing such a report, which is full of prejudice, arrogance and ignorance, is unimaginative and even counterproductive.
Only a few members from banned cults and illegal extremist religious organizations, which engage in illegal or splittist activities under the guise of seeking religious freedom, have been punished in China strictly according to the laws.
Falun Gong followers — there are said to be tens of millions of believers in China — were said to be especially targeted for harassment and even detention in high-security psychiatric facilities for the criminally insane, although the report acknowledged that such charges were difficult to verify.
“Some neighborhood communities reportedly were instructed to report on Falun Gong members to officials; monetary rewards were offered to citizens who informed on Falun Gong practitioners,” the report said.
The report noted that China’s central government “stated that it did not detain or arrest anyone solely because of his or her religion.”
The report found encouraging signs in China, too. Three Catholic bishops were ordained in 2011, “with the approval of both the Vatican and the official Chinese Catholic church.” Church groups were encouraged to provide social services in quake-hit areas of Sichuan Province.
In its assessment of North Korea, the U.S. report acknowledged that “little is known about the day-to-day life of religious persons in the country.” An excerpt:
Members of government-controlled religious groups did not appear to suffer discrimination, while members of underground churches or those connected to missionary activities were reportedly regarded as subversive elements. Some reports claimed, and circumstantial evidence suggested, that many if not most of the government-controlled religious organizations were created for propaganda and political purposes, including meeting with foreign religious visitors.
Some NGOs and academics estimated there may be up to several hundred thousand Christians practicing their faith underground in the country. Others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded that it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes.
Washington has welcomed recent political reforms in Myanmar, the former Burma, and Mrs. Clinton seems to have connected personally with the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. And the State Department noted the passage of “the first law in several decades to allow peaceful assembly.”
But the report also cited ongoing and widespread abuses of religious freedoms, from arbitrary arrests of Muslims to the harassment of Baptists.
Traditional Christian and Islamic holidays continued to be controlled by the authorities, the report said. Permits to build or repair mosques were said to be rarely granted; Muslims living in Rakhine State often needed to pay bribes to get permission to travel for any purpose; and ethnic Rohingya Muslims “continued to experience the severest forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination.”
An excerpt from the Myanmar report:
The government continued its efforts to exert control over the Buddhist clergy (Sangha). It tried Sangha members for “activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism” and imposed on the Sangha a code of conduct enforced by criminal penalties.
The government continued the detention, imprisonment, and interrogation of politically active Buddhist monks. In prison, some monks were defrocked and treated as laypersons. In general they were not allowed to shave their heads and were not given food compatible with the monastic code, which dictates that monks should not eat after noon. They often were beaten and forced to do hard labor.
The State Department’s report on religion is separate from its annual assessment of human rights, which was published in May.
It is also not to be confused with another report, also recently issued, by the independent federal panel known as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.