ASIA – Religious freedom takes a dive across Asia

UCA News | Michael Sainsbury | April 30, 2020

It was all bad news for Asian nations in the annual United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report, with four more countries — India, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia — sliding down into the two lowest, most persecuting categories, joining Myanmar, China and North Korea.

The report certainly backs up the consistent themes of increasing persecution across the region that have been covered by journalists for UCA News and its sister publication, La Croix International.

The surprise but deserved return of India to the list of worst offenders — a recommendation that the US State Department designates as “countries of particular concern” — has been the primary focus of initial reporting. But there are multiple other sins by the region’s increasingly authoritarian governments that have been laid bare by this important yearly reckoning. The world’s largest democracy should not be a place where such overt religious discrimination and persecution should be allowed to prosper.

One of the very few upsides of the Trump administration has been the heightened focus in Washington of religious issues across the world — and this applies especially to Asia. As well as an increased focus on this report, US Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback, appointed in 2018 and the first Catholic to hold the job, has been prominent in prosecuting the case against those who engage in religious persecution.

In terms of this week’s report, China and North Korea have been long-time cellar dwellers among 10 religious freedom states — persecuting believers of all faiths is something authoritarian regimes excel at all too well. The Kim dynasty has all but wiped out Christianity in North Korea. 

“There are no formally registered, independent houses of worship in North Korea. The government has established several state-sponsored religious organizations and permits five churches to operate in Pyongyang. However, human rights groups and defectors from the country allege that these institutions exist merely to provide the illusion of religious freedom,” the report said.

China continues to ramp up its program of “sinicization” of religion that has resulted in the worst five years of persecution since the Cultural Revolution (1996-76).

The report found that religious freedom conditions in China continued to deteriorate, noting that the Chinese government has created a high-tech surveillance state, using facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor religious minorities. “On April 1, a new regulation requiring religious venues to have legal representatives and professional accountants went into effect. Some smaller religious venues, especially in rural areas, found these requirements impossible to fulfil,” it said.

Pakistan, too has been a regular at the bottom of the list and the report noted “the systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities to Islam — including Hindus, Christians and Sikhs — severely restricted freedom of religion or belief.”

In recent years, but perhaps overdue, was the addition to the lowest category of Myanmar for its ethnic cleansing/attempted genocide of Muslim Rohingya as the army chased, raped and killed more than 700,000 people, with survivors remaining in makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, one of the wettest regions on the planet.