Religious Freedom around the World
by Alex Colvin
"Experts" to Rule on Witnesses in Russia
On March 15, the Russian Judge overseeing the trial of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow decreed that the decision whether or not to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be made by a panel of five experts. The panel is to be comprised of three members appointed by the prosecution and two members chosen by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that they would appeal the case. If their appeal is successful, their case could go directly to the European Court of Human Rights.
This is the first case in which prosecutors have attempted to apply the 1997 law on religions. Prosecutors want the religion to be disbanded and banned in Russia, charging, among other things, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses destroy families, foster hatred, and cause their members to commit suicide. The religion law authorizes the government to disband any religion that incites hatred or intolerant behavior. The trial was begun in September but was postponed till early November and then again until early this year.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been practicing in Russia since the last century. The church estimates that they have about 250,000 members in that country. Human rights activists charge that the 1997 law on religions violates the Russian Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion. They have been watching this case closely fearing that the Russian state will use this as a precedent to ban other non-Orthodox faiths, particularly evangelical groups and new religious movements. The European Parliament recently passed a resolution calling on Russia to uphold international conventions guaranteeing religious freedom to which Russia is a party. The US State Department, members of Congress, and the Vatican have also expressed concern and criticized the !997 Russian law.
There have been an increasing number of incidents regarding repression of religious groups in Russia. In 1998, an Evangelical Lutheran community in Khakassia was banned, and the New Generation Church in Yaroslav and the Zion Community Church in Reutov were closed. In Orel, 300 miles south of Moscow, authorities refused the return of a Roman Catholic church building and Catholics have been denied access to the press. Since the beginning of this year, the Pentecostalist Church was banned in Aldun in eastern Siberia, 400 Pentecostalists claiming they were harassed by local officials in the northern city of Magadan applied for asylum in the United States, and Moscow tax police raided the offices of the Church of Scientology. In early March, police in St. Petersburg focibly removed 25 schoolchildren from Prins Maurits, a Christian School run by a Dutch-based religious society called Open Christianity.
China Renews Attacks Against Dalai Lama
On the 40th anniversary of an unsuccessful and brutally suppressed uprising by the people of Tibet against Chinese rule, the People’s Daily ran an article attacking the Dalai Lama as a "separatist’ and a "tool used by anti-Chinese forces." Meanwhile, in Dharamshala, India home to hundreds of thousands of Tibetan exiles, the Dalai Lama spoke to his followers assuring China that he was not seeking independence but calling for dialogue which could lead to genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people.
Chinese policy in Tibet has become increasingly severe over the past several years as they pursue a policy named "Strike Hard," ostensibly an anti-crime campaign, which endeavors to have Tibetans denounce the Dalai Lama, pledge allegiance to the Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama, oppose independence for Tibet, and promise to work for the unity of the Chinese motherland. Monks and nuns have been told that if they will criticize the Dalai Lama they will be okay, but if they refuse, they are arrested and their monasteries or nunneries are closed. As a result thousands of monks and nuns have been fleeing to India.
Toward the end of 1998, the government began to force the retirement of monks over 60 years of age in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Quinhai, seriously affecting the transmission of Buddhist doctrine. Furthermore, the government has recently been placing increased pressure on parents who have sent their children to India to be educated in schools run by the Dalai Lama to have them returned to Tibet.
Many younger Tibetan exiles are becoming impatient with the Dalai Lama’s position, declaring that autonomy under the Chinese is unacceptable. Demonstrations for a free Tibet were held in Katmandu and new Delhi on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising.
French Government Escalates War Against Small Religions
In 1996, a French parliamentary commission named 172 groups, including primarily minority religions as "dangerous sects." In 1998, an Interministerial Mission for the Fight Against Cults was formed and Alain Vivien was named as its president. In an interview in Le Generaliste, 2 February 1999, Vivien outlined his strategy for harassing and seeking to eliminate these groups from French society.
Vivian cited five areas in which the commission would spearhead actions: activities aimed at children, information aimed at the general public, using the legal system in the fight, investigating "cult" finances, and using general practitioners.
Children of families who do not educate their children in state schools or schools under a contract with the state educational system, including parents who have chosen to home school their children must be tested for their knowledge each year. If it is found lacking the parents can be fined or imprisoned.
Regarding public information, Vivian is planning a national campaign using parent associations in the public education system and trade unions. He plans to work closely with "anti-cult" organizations such UNADFI (National Union for the Defense of Families and Individuals) in training teachers and youth leaders in "anti-cult" materials and informing the public. He also plans to train Human Resource Directors in large companies to detect members of "cults."
Vivian also intends to use to legal system to harass minority groups which the commission has deemed to be "cults," placing these groups under close scrutiny to determine if their are any bases for prosecution and encouraging lawsuits against cult for which they can be held accountable for legal expenses. He has also stressed that groups that have been named as "cults" should be targeted for special financial scrutiny
Finally he has proposed that general practitioners must teach their patients to be more critical when receiving offers from "cults." They must contact local branches of anti-cult groups when a "cult" is suspected of setting up in an area. They must report on any possibility that a child may be at risk or when a member of any group on the commission’s blacklist puts the family budget at risk by making financial contributions to or participating in the activities of that group.
Human rights activists and scholars have been alarmed at France’s sensationalist reaction to new religious movements and at their official alignment with so-called "anti-cult" organizations. While Germany and the European Parliament both initiated investigations into the "cults" or "sects," both found that these religious movements presented no danger to society and the German report recommended that any future discussion of new and minority religious groups abandon the use of the terms sect or cult.
Religious and Ethnic Violence Continues in Indonesia
In spite of calls by both Muslim and Christian leaders for peace and the presence of thousands of government troops, religious and ethnic violence in Indonesia continues to spread. The violence began in November, when Muslim mobs burned seven churches and ransacked sixteen more in Jakarta. Christian mobs in Kupang, West Timor, retaliated by setting fire to mosques. This year, riots have been most severe on the island of Ambon, resulting in the deaths of more than 200 people.
As the government deployed soldiers in Ambon to quell the violence, fresh clashes have broken out in other areas including Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, where more than 50 people were killed, and Riau. In Aceh, a Muslim province of Sumatra, five American missionaries were chases to a police station. Irate locals stoned the police station and burned a police vehicle.
Attacks on Christians in India Causes Growing Concern
During 1998, more than thirty attacks on Christians occurred in Gujarat province. On October 30, members of the Hindu fundamentalist group, Bajrang Dal, attacked a convention of the Alpha Missionary Society. More than two dozen police arrived on the scene but did nothing as delegates were beaten with sticks, belts, chains and fists. Forty people were injured, including one person who was thrown from a second story window. While no Hindus were arrested, others who came to inquire about the attack were arrested, detained overnight and beaten. Another Hindu fundamentalist group arrived at the convention, tore down the stage, and destroyed any Bibles that could be found.
In January of 1999, an Australian missionary was murdered in the state of Orissa, and in March, more than five hundred Christians were made homeless when a meeting between Hindus and Christians resulted in shots being fired and houses burned down. The government of Orissa has ordered an inquiry into the clashes.
The rise of anti-Christian violence has raised concern about Hindu nationalism. While leading members of India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, have condemned the attacks, anti-Christian rhetoric has been rising. One Cabinet official, Madan Lal Khurana, tourism and parliamentary affairs minister, resigned saying that he wasn't able to get fellow BJP members to back his call for an end to anti-Christian rhetoric. Those wishing to lessen tension were also chagrined that Prime Minister Vajpayee, while visiting a rural region of western India plagued by violence, stated that the country should have a debate on "conversion," a word brandished by extremists who have attacked Christians.
Afghan Shiites Beaten By Taliban soldiers
For centuries Shiites in Iran and Afghanistan have celebrated the new year according to the Persian calendar. However, Taliban declared that such celebration violates Islamic law and told Shiite clerics to instruct their followers not to participate. When residents, including a number of women, went to gravesites to offer prayers on new years day, they were arrested and beaten by Taliban soldiers.
Taliban, which controls ninety percent of Afghanistan, has been imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic law on the population. The laws are particularly restrictive concerning women. Women are required to wear "burqas" which cover the body from head to foot and they have been forced to leave jobs and schools. In a law in December, Taliban ruled that men and women must travel in separate buses and that woman’s buses must have a curtain preventing the driver from viewing the women. Women are not permitted to drive. Bus drivers are forbidden from wearing long hair or shiny clothes. Bus drivers playing music may be punished by a public beating.
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