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Asia PDF Print E-mail

Michael Young
Columbia University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

I don’t think I have ever been asked to cover all of Asia in 20 minutes, but I will try to do that with two central thoughts.

Let’s start with a scripture verse from the Christian Bible’s book of Matthew. It says, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” To the extent one believes that, many Asian governments provide blessings to Christians. Persecution is extensive, but there are also rays of hope. It is very much like quoting Dickens: “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” I want to cover both positive developments and approaches as well as the very severe problems.

I will begin by examining some of the reasons for religious persecution. The reasons differ from country to country and within particular countries from religious group to religious group. One reason is a fear of external influences. Many Asian countries are particularly sensitive to the prospect that there will be destabilizing external influences. China is very vocal in that regard, as are a number of other Asian countries. Many religions are considered foreign and are therefore particular targets.

In some cases, groups that have a separatist agenda are often also both ethnically and religiously identified. Sometimes these groups are supported by external religious organizations or people who are identified with a particular religion. There is also fear in a number of these countries regarding internal political stability and the integrity of borders.

Third, many of these countries fear religions, both domestic and foreign, as possible alternate sources of legitimacy and allegiance on the part of the people that may undermine the state’s ability to control its population. Religions often provide a convenient scapegoat in the event of political unrest caused by failed economic, social, or political policies. Religions often are blamed for some of these failures and, therefore, become easy targets for persecution on the part of the government.

There also exists in Asia, as in many other regions, some basic secular hostility to religion. Religion is viewed as somehow antiquated, superstitious, or pre-modern, and it is the government’s job to stamp out those influences in the process of rationalizing societies.

Finally, in Asia, as in many other places, it is important to acknowledge the effect of plain bureaucratic ineptitude. Ignorance, inefficiency, and policies with unintended consequences are major problems in some countries. As in other parts of the world, if a government feels a loss of authority when a religion presents an alternative set of allegiances, it may try to exercise more control over the daily life of its citizens. It may also react with indoctrination campaigns. One can see in these circumstances that the reason for religious persecution often relates to the mechanisms that the government uses.

To complete this picture, allow me to turn to some specific countries. Asia presents a fairly good case study in examining why the degree of religious persecution varies from country to country. A number of variables are important to consider: history, current demographic patterns, and so forth; but the variable that seems most profound in these cases, and most causally related, seems to be the degree of confidence the government has in itself and the degree of legitimacy. The higher the degree of legitimacy, the greater the government’s confidence in its own ability to rule, the more space it gives religion. Less confidence and a lower degree of legitimacy seem to intensify persecution rather dramatically.

Looking at it from that perspective, I suggest several patterns. The first, starting on the good end of the spectrum, are the liberal democracies, such as they are. They tend to be relatively confident and believe themselves to have a relatively high degree of legitimacy. They also tend to have relatively low levels of religious persecution. It is also the case, however, that most of these countries have relatively high degrees of ethnic uniformity as well. Religion does not tend to play a politically divisive role, as it does in some other countries. Japan is a fairly good example of this first pattern.

Japan is a country with relatively little overt hostile persecution of religion. In fact, in the postwar period it is arguable that Japan has swung a little bit too far the other way and has not adequately supervised the activities of some organizations that claim a religious identification and therefore some immunity from government inspection. The clearest example of that is Aum Shinrikyo, which engaged in a series of murders and gas attacks. These are things about which the police almost certainly had a relatively large amount of information well before the culminating attack on the subway in Tokyo.

Much of this stems from Japan’s use of religion, particularly Shintoism, as a device to mobilize patriotic support and to enhance the militarization of Japan prior to World War II. This has caused the government to exercise tremendous caution when dealing with religions. That has been, by and large, a healthy caution, though now the pendulum is swinging just a bit the other way to occasion some enhanced supervision. The problems that occur in Japan tend to be problems similar to those in other liberal democracies—bureaucratic ineptitude, some fundamental secular hostility, and a lack of understanding in the ways in which governmental regulation may adversely affect religious worship and religious activities.

South Korea is similar to Japan in many ways, though it has generally been less confident. Interestingly, even when the government was clearly less confident in itself, and less legitimate, religious tolerance remained fairly high. This was true even for religions that were not indigenous, such as Christianity. There may be a couple reasons. One is that the Christian movement in Korea had relatively little organizational cohesion and tended to break into a large number of somewhat smaller churches. Therefore, the political force may have been somewhat muted.

Another possible reason is that Christianity was viewed, at least partially, as an implicit rejection of Japanese values. Japan, having occupied Korea for many years, has generated tremendous hostility within Korea. Christianity was viewed in many ways as a strong rejection of Japanese values and was therefore not discouraged by the government. Korea has its share of problems in relation to religious freedom, but they tend to be of the kind I described in the case of Japan.

The Philippines and Taiwan are also on this side of the spectrum, as is Thailand to some extent. We begin to shift a little bit in the case of Thailand. Buddhism is the state religion in Thailand, but, by and large, restriction of other religions is not so great.

Singapore is an interesting case. Here, we begin to move along the spectrum a little more.This country is somewhat less confident and less legitimate, with ethnic minority groups having less democracy than is true in some of the other countries I just talked about. There is a fair amount of government scrutiny of religion. Religions are required to register. Some are banned, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The justification for the Jehovah’s Witness ban is that they refuse to perform military service, to salute the flag, and so forth. Although the forms this persecution takes may not be as horrendous as some of the other areas mentioned today, clearly the government does take actions designed to try and eliminate proscribed religions. For example, recently a 72-year-old woman, a Jehovah’s Witness, was arrested for possessing Jehovah’s Witness literature. The entire building in which she lived was raided and the literature was seized.

Now let me turn to the other end of the spectrum. What are probably two of the most repressive regimes in the world are in Asia, Burma and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea. They are an example of just about everything you can think of that is bad in terms of trying to stamp out religion. They do this predominantly through extensive registration requirements and monitoring all religious activities. Only authorized religious activities are permitted. The few authorized religious organizations that do exist appear to be sham organizations, with the possible exception of Buddhism.

In Burma, the government favors Buddhism because it is viewed as an indigenous religion. Government officials are often seen presiding at Buddhist ceremonies. All other religions are strongly discouraged. There is a small Muslim population. The Burmese government seems to both stimulate Buddhists to attack Muslims and sit by and tolerate the destruction of Muslim property, including mosques and other holy places. There are no Bibles permitted in native languages in Burma.

North Korea is similar. It has destroyed all foreign religious activity for fear of foreign influence, as well as for fear of subverting the domestic regime. There are a few state-sponsored religious organizations, which appear to be designed to interact with religious charitable organizations that have been providing aid and food to Korea. It appears, by all accounts, that these are completely staged religious activities. The people who run them seem quite unfamiliar with the doctrine of the churches they supposedly represent. The only religious activity in these organizations appears to occur on a government-scheduled basis. People who have gone to supposedly Christian churches without scheduling their visit in advance have found them locked and empty. There really doesn’t appear to be a serious religious component to government-authorized organizations. Religious organizations that are not authorized are simply not tolerated. It is hard to get more information from within North Korea as to the exact extent of persecution or the actual size of the religious community there. What is clear is that the government exercises very severe control over all kinds of speech and assembly, as well as virtually every aspect of a person’s life. Therefore, it is not unlikely that there is religious intolerance as well.

Vietnam follows the same pattern. It severely restricts religion, though in recent years there has been some relaxation. You must have government permission to train clergy, hold conventions, have any non-regular services, or promote, transfer, or assign clergy. It is hard, if not impossible, to obtain materials. Everything is under government control. There are three government organizations under which all religious activities are supposed to be sponsored: the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the Catholic Patriotic Organization, and the Christian Missionary Alliance. The Vietnamese government routinely arrests anybody who practices or exercises any form of observable religion outside of the scope of these three organizations.

Let me spend just a few minutes on China. China is obviously a country, given its size and importance, about which we need to be very concerned. China manifests virtually all forms of religious persecution for all of the reasons we have discussed. One thing that is particularly interesting about China, however, is the lessons one can learn about the new forms that religious control and persecution may take. I stress this point because I think there is a very strong analogy to what is going on in Russia and some of the eastern European states these days.

China is beginning to reduce explicitly police-based persecution of religion in terms of simply shutting down churches and running people out of town. Instead, it has shifted to a much more legally based persecution. There has been this very strong shift, probably for several reasons. Number one is that their more overt persecutions seem not to be working very well. Number two, religious interest is clearly on the rise in China, and the authorities are obviously very worried. Number three, there has been very strong external pressure from the West to establish a more predictable legal regime that respects human rights. These reasons seem to have combined in the minds of the Chinese leaders to create a system in which they accommodate the West by creating laws, while in fact, the laws that they are creating are particularly effective devices for controlling the legal religious organizations and for the persecution of undesired religious groups.

These laws are characterized by an increasing tendency to create an overreaching law that creates registry powers and then to delegate authority to local levels of government to interpret and apply the laws in practice. The effect over the past few years, and the last year in particular, is that we have seen local provinces and some autonomous regions issuing very elaborate directives about how religions are to be handled. Local interpretation of these laws suggests religion and religious groups will be handled in a very strict, draconian way. Indeed, one sees substantial evidence of such treatment in China.

At the same time, the leaders at the central level are professing that these laws are just. They profess that every country needs to regulate religions and have them registered to provide adequate tax benefits and so forth. They are willfully blind as to the way in which these laws are actually being interpreted and implemented at the local level. Combined with the absence of an effective judiciary, the absence of lawyers who are trained to defend religious groups and individuals and the tremendous bureaucratic discretion and control of power at the local level, we are witnessing the creation of a legal system that may—and indeed the Chinese leaders anticipate will— be more effective in suppressing religion than their prior efforts.

Let us take a brief look at these laws, which are designed to put religion under state control. You have to register. Registered religions are all designed to achieve the policies of the government. There can be no foreign influence. There is a very strong and effective organization that will not register all who apply. There may be some difficulty in registering. There are also difficulties for any religion that is not willing to profess its allegiance to the state, both ideologically and administratively. A number of religions have explicitly chosen not to register. Unregistered groups may be charged with a variety of offenses; their property may be destroyed or confiscated, leaders fined or jailed, and followers punished by loss of employment, housing, fines, etc., not to mention possible physical abuse.

Other groups have chosen to try and operate on the fringe. Those who operate on the fringe are subject to quite severe persecution and arrests of all different sorts. These include a case in which elderly people were arrested at 11:00 or 12:00 at night as they were trying to perform a funeral mass for an elderly nun who had passed away. They were arrested and sentenced to three years of education.

Adherence to religion is grounds for dismissal from the Communist Party. Achievement of any political post is predicated on membership in the Communist Party. Therefore, one effectively controls political participation as well.

The Chinese are concerned about separatist movements in Tibet and in several provinces in western China with a high concentration of Muslims. In these areas the persecution of religion is much more active, intense, and aggressive, and is much more military oriented.

Let me close with one last case study I think is quite interesting. Indonesia has many of the characteristics that might lead one to think that it would be inclined to persecute religion. It has, however, achieved a fairly delicate ethnic balance. If ethnic warfare were to break out, it could be so explosive that it would destabilize the country almost instantly. While one would not go so far as to say that the government has worked diligently to provide great public space, it nevertheless has worked to some extent to encourage toleration.

For example, there were a series of riots in one part of the country where there had been mob violence against Christians and Buddhists by a Muslim community. The government immediately went in and worked with a series of youth organizations that Indonesian youth are required to join. They created an amalgamation of those organizations that was designed to bring Islamic, Protestant, and Catholic youth together to discuss toleration. At the same time, the president went to an island that had been subject to a fair amount of Muslim persecution of religions and dedicated a 40-foot-high statue of Christ as a sign that religious tolerance was an important aspect of Indonesian society.

I don’t mean to overstate Indonesia as an ideal society, but I would like to suggest that there are countries in Asia that provide examples we should encourage. Certainly, the U.S. government as well as other governments and international organizations should put pressure on those governments engaged in religious persecution and suppression to change their behavior. At the same time, there are also some countries in Asia from which I think others in the world can learn by examining the situations in those countries and comparing them to the situation in their own.