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Religion and Society

Report on religious freedom in the world 2012

 Africa-Asia Summary 

 

 

 

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was followed by the collapse of Ben Ali’s regime and the elections won by the Islamist party Ennahda. Religious minorities are quite concerned owing to the increasing power of the Salafis and the risk that the sharia be reintroduced in the new constitution. In Egypt, despite the hopes and the enthusiasm shared by Christians and Muslins in Tahrir square, the situation of the Copts did not improve at all. The political scenario is changing and for the time being there has been no change in law provisions concerning religious freedom. However, in 2011 the attacks against the Copts took alarming proportions, starting with the attack on New Year’s Eve against the Coptic-Orthodox Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria. The Muslims involved in the anti-Christian attacks are still benefiting from a merciful justice. Unrest gained ground in Libya further to the statements made by the National Transition Council concerning the adoption of the sharia as the main source of law.

 

The new Constitution adopted in Morocco in 2011 confirmed Islam as the official state religion. Christians may enjoy freedom of worship only if foreigners, and may not promote their own faith. Muslims of Moroccan origin cannot officially give up their religion. Non-Muslim proselytism is condemned also in Algeria, where the activities of non-Islamic religions are regulated by highly restrictive law provisions, with the government even limiting the number and the duration of visas for religious staff. The State is also considerably limiting the freedom of Muslims.

 

Any potential influences of the Arab Spring have been entirely neutralised in Saudi Arabia where violations of religious freedom are still being perpetrated. Arrests and raids of the police into Christian homes during prayer meetings are an everyday occurrence. In March 2012 harsh reactions were recorded internationally further to the fatwa in which the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia pointed out the need to destroy all churches in the Arabic peninsula. Highly discriminated are also the Ishmaelites and the Shiites, who in some areas are not allowed to celebrate religious feasts. The Sunni government of Bahrein reacted quite harshly to the Shia revolt broken out in the wake of the Arab spring, destroying several Shia mosques on the pretext of being illegal.

 

 

Some improvements have been taking place in the United Arab Emirates,since in June 2011 the first Russian-Orthodox Church was opened in Sharjah, whereas the situation is still quite positive in Jordan, Oman and Qatar. Conversely, in Kuwait, the radical Islamists of the parliamentary group Al-Adala Bloc have announced early this year a bill to prohibit the building of churches and other non-Islamic places of worship across the country. Law and order and security have recorded an all-time low in Yemen, where the Yemenite arm of al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the murder of an American teacher – occurred on 25th March 2012 – who was accused of «trying to promote Christianity». In Iran the Protestant pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was acquitted of apostasy charges ad released; the pastor had been arrested on 13th October 2009 while trying to legally register his community and sentenced to death. In Israel there is currently a lively debate about the new constitutional amendment forcing non-Jews applying for Israeli citizenship to take an oath of allegiance «to the State of Israel, being a Jewish and democratic State». Anti-Christian acts have been increasing in the Palestinian Territories and Gaza. In Lebanon the desire for political neutrality is causing some concerns with religious leaders about a possible success of an Islamic outlook in the public administration. Christians are still suffering in Iraq, often victims of kidnappings, homicides and attacks like the ones against the Syrian-Catholic cathedral in Baghdad. And the massive exodus of believers to neighbouring countries or the Iraqi Kurdistan is not stopping. The situation is also unstable in Syria, where violent acts are still going on.

 

Central and Southern Africa

 

In many countries, religious freedom is protected by the Constitution and it is required that religious groups are registered. Islamic groups are spreading, like Boko Haram, which claimed responsibility for several attacks against the Christians in Nigeria. From 1999 to late 2011, 14,000 Nigerians were killed owing to religious-based violence between Christians and Muslims. Last year, in the week following presidential elections of 16th April, some 800 people were killed and 65,000 had to leave their homes. With the avowed aim to get rid of all Christians, the Islamic sect hit institutions, churches and Christians resident in central and northern states. In the 12 countries that have adopted the Sharia as a source of criminal law there have been several limitations of religious freedom: false charges of blasphemy, failed permits to build places of worship and Christian cemeteries, demolition of churches considered to be illegal, kidnapping and forced conversions of teenagers.

 

After South Sudan’s secession, president Omar El Bashir declared that Sudan was planning to introduce a constitution entirely based on the sharia. Violence and hostility against the Christians are an everyday occurrence in the country, along with charges of proselytism. In the current, albeit provisional, Constitution of the newborn South Sudan, the equality of all religions and freedom of religion are explicitly acknowledged. Strained relations with Khartoum, however, might have a negative impact on peaceful coexistence. The situation in Eritrea is quite dramaticsince the Constitution of 1997 guaranteeing religious freedom was not made effective yet. Also the religious are subject to drafting and in 2011, hadn’t the Church strongly opposed, even seminarians, priests, monks and nuns would have been drafted. It is estimated that the prisoners of conscience for religious reasons – often tortured and abused - are currently 2 to 3 thousand. Such ruthless cruelty is aimed at forcing the convicts to abjure.

 

 

The fact that the new constitution of Kenya, promulgated in August 2010, albeit guaranteeing religious freedom, is still envisaging a special tribunal for Muslims applying the Islamic law (Shari’a) when both parties profess this faith, is raising a few concerns. In Mali, the political scenario has exacerbated owing to the upheaval caused by the military coup d’état of March 2012. More specifically, the secessionist attempt currently under way in the North with the support of the extremist Islamic group affiliated to AQIM (Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) is quite worrying, given the plans to impose the Shari’a throughout the country. In 2011 in Somalia, killings of Christians or alleged Christians by Al-Shabaab – begun in 2008 – are still going on. No constitution is in force in the territories controlled by al-Shabaab, rather a radical version of the Shari’a is applied, leaving no room to religions other than Islam, including traditional Somali Islam of Sufi origin, which is considered to be heretical.

 

Religious minorities in Ethiopia are victims of injustice and discrimination. In particular, Christian believers of all denominations were attacked, and so did their homes and places of worship. Conversely, attacks against religious staff in some countries, including the murders of Sister Lukrecija Mamic of the Servants of Charity, the volunteer Francesco Bazzani in Burundi and Sister Jeanne Yegmane, killed by the guerrillas of the LRA Lord's Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were not ascribable to faith-based hatred, but to a general climate of violence. Crimes against the Church, not attributable to religious reasons, were recorded also in the Ivory Coast and in the Central African Republic. Whereas in Zimbabwe the constitutional recognition of religious freedom was strongly reconsidered by the Act on Law and Order and Security, some positive signs are visible in other countries, for example in Benin,where Popo Benedict XVI’s visitation had some important consequences for human rights, and in Ghana, with the setting-up of the National Peace Council in November 2011 aimed at preventing, managing and solving internal conflicts, and in Guinea Conakry whose Commission for National Reconciliation is lead by the Catholic Archbishop of the capital and the most distinguished Imam of the Country.

 

 

 

Central and Southern Asia

 

The improved condition of the Sunni minority is the only step forward recorded in Afghanistan, where the prohibition on conversion is still in force. The Taliban had actually shown on the internet the execution of a convert since they considered it to be an «exemplary homicide». In May 2010, after a local TV station had broadcast the baptism of a few citizens, an actual “convert-hunt” began, which was de facto legitimated by the government. The picture is quite gloomy also in Azerbaijan, since in December 2011 president Aliye approved a few amendments turning violations of religious rules into criminal offences. There are still a few problems in the Azeri Muslim community and among some Christian denominations, whereas the Catholic Church, thanks to a bilateral agreement, is the only one to have missionary activities going on. Conversely, the Catholic Church is undergoing difficulties in Kazakhstan as a result of the new laws passed in October 2011 aiming to nationalise religious communities, following along the lines of China. More than 50% of Catholic bishops and priests are foreigners and the harsh restrictions on the visas of non-Kazakh religious leaders are raising a few concerns. According to new rules introduced in Tajikistan, organisers and participants of unauthorised religious meetings may be sentenced to two years in prison. Besides, minors are not allowed to participate in any type of religious activity. The exercise of religious freedom in Turkmenistan often leads to vexations and abuse; likewise, systematic violations are observed in Uzbekistan. There is still a long way to go in Kyrgyzstan – the first parliamentary democracy of Central Asia – where discrimination is still taking place despite institutional innovations.

 

Alert is also high in Sri Lanka, given several episodes of intolerance. Significant in this regard is the specious arrest of the Catholic religious Sister Mary Eliza. In Bangladesh strained relations among settlers – mosty Muslisms – and tribesmen – mostly animists, Christians and Buddhists – are likely to take on a religious connotation. Meanwhile, in June 2011, the government has approved the amendment whereby Islam is recognised as the official State religion. One month before in Nepal, the government tabled a bill concerning a new criminal code banning proselytism with a view to putting a stopper on conversions to Christianity and religions other than Hinduism and Buddhism. Said measure epitomises the influence exerted by the Hindu establishment, which is also confirmed by the enforcement of anti-conversion laws. The same enforcement is going on in India, where the number of attacks on minorities is constantly growing. According to the data collected by the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), in 2011 only, Christian minorities suffered 170 mild or severe attacks perpetrated by Hindu nationalists, mostly from the Hindu nationalist movement Sangh Parivar. On top of anti-Christian violence, no justice was done for the victims of the 2008 pogrom: only one murder sentence in 20 cases. Meanwhile, in September 2011, the Parliament has once again failed to approve the Communal Violence Bill on interreligious violence.

 

2011 was a terrible year for Pakistan. Following the murder of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January, the Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed on 2nd March. No amendments were made to the anti-blasphemy law, the so-called «black law», owing to which at least 161 people were charged in 2011 with blasphemy and nine killed with out-of-court executions. Attacks against Christian buildings and believers are countless, even if the fear of retaliation is having an impact on the number of reports to the police. However, other religious minorities are also the target of religious-based violence: Hindus, Shiites and Ahamadis. A dramatic increase was recorded in the number of kidnappings and violent acts suffered by women belonging to religious minorities. Every year approximately 700 Christian girls and at least 250 Hindus are kidnapped, raped and forced to convert.

 

Eastern Asia

 

Tremendous violations of religious freedom in China are probably the result of imminent changes in political power and the fear of the Arab Spring contagion. 2011 was an unprecedented year in terms of number of Christians (Catholics and Protestants), Muslims and Buddhists (Tibetan) that have been arrested; and harsher measures taken by the government are probably due to the increasing religious interest that is gaining ground in the country, especially when it comes to Christianity. Further tensions between Beijing and the Holy See were also attributable to the new illicit ordinations and the many cases of arrests, tortures and «re-education through work» suffered by those who stayed faithful to the Pope and refused to join the Patriotic Association. Besides, the question of the property confiscated from the Church after Mao Zedong’s rise to power is still open. Protestants were also the victims of severe violations, in particular the Church of Shouwang, which has been waiting to be officially recognised since 2006. And while the fear generated by the Arab revolutions has lead to a harsh repression of Muslims (especially Uyghurs), Tibetan Buddhists were the victims of arrests, monasteries were closed down and campaigns were mounted against the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa Lama.Following along the lines of China, the government of Vietnam is trying to promote a patriotic stance “competing” with the groups that are loyal to the Pope. Evidence of this is the choice of several priests to run for elections at the People’s Assembly in May 2011. Examples of these persecutions are interrupted celebrations, arrests, destruction of religious buildings, confiscation of property, attacks against believers. Violence, arrests and discrimination have been going on throughout 2011. Also in Myanmar anti-Christian persecutions have a political connotation and the introduction of political reforms aimed at making the country gain credit on the International scenario did not undermine the government’s hostile attitude towards Christian religions, which are socially considered as «foreign religions». The situation of the Muslim minority Rohingya is quite dramatic, while the ten-year-old violent persecution of the ethnic-religious minority of the Hmong – marked by arrests and violence perpetrated by the authorities - has been going on throughout 2011, reaching its apex between April and May with the repression of some peaceful demonstrations. Violations of religious freedom are regularly recorded in Laos, especially in the North, where there have been protests against the strict control of authorities over religious activities. Restrictions affect the Catholic church, too, which however celebrated a memorable event in January 2011: the first priestly ordination in 40 years in the northern part of the country. Religious freedom is totally denied also in North Korea, where persecutions began in 1953 with the division of the peninsula. As confirmed by the refugees, it is quite common for people involved in religious activities to be placed in prison camps, subject to torture and extremely severe detention measures. No reason of hope came from the official visit of a group of South-Korean protestant pastors in November 2011, which was more the result of “humanitarian opportunism” than actual “religious interest”.

 

 

Religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution in South Korea and fully recognised in the Philippines; however, attacks against Christian buildings were recorded in the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao. The bomb explosion of 25th December 2010 in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jolo was followed in 2011 by attacks to churches and government buildings attributable to the Milf, a well-known Islamic separatist movement. Conversely, the killing of Father Fausto Tentorio, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions operating among the Manobo people, was apparently associated with the defence of tribal communities, since the ethnic group was running the risk of extinction, having been dispossessed of their land by agricultural and mining companies. Several episodes of interreligious violence were recorded in Indonesia, where the government, for political self-interest or inability, ends up tolerating extremist groups encouraging intimidation, discrimination and abuse against minorities. There were several acts of violence against Catholics, whereas in September 2011, Islamic-Christian fights broke out again in the Moluccan islands. With the indifference of the authorities, Islamic extremists have attacked places of worship and slaughtered the believers of the Ahmadi minority, whereas on 15th April 2011 a suicide bomber blew himself up in the mosque of Taka: that was the first suicide attack in a mosque and the first in the history of the country.

 

The problem of Islamic violence in the Muslim-majority provinces of Thailand is still unsolved, where however a climate of cooperation is placing the country among the first in Asia in terms of progress of interreligious dialogue. Conversely, in Malaysia, the increasing importance gained by Islamic courts to which civil tribunals often refer for family law issues is raising a few concerns. In March 2011 the debate on the Bibles in Malay flared up again, following the Government’s decision to stop their dissemination owing to the age-old problem caused by the word “Allah” used to define the God of Christians. As regards State-religion relations, in 2011 an agreement was signed for the mutual recognition of qualifications between ecclesiastical universities and universities in Taiwan.

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