Religious Freedom Around the World
By Rick Hunter
Dating from the third and fifth centuries, Afghanistan’s best known archeological treasures were destroyed by tanks, artillery, rockets and dynamite in March, 2001 on orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, supreme leader of the Taliban, in order to "prevent idolatry." The two Buddhas, 175 feet and 120 feet high with gold faces and hands, were carved into the rock of the Hindu Cush mountains in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. They were purported to be the largest standing Buddhas in the world.
Omar reversed his earlier position of protection and restoration of the Buddhas and claimed that Islam demanded their destruction along with all statues, images, paintings and religious artifacts. Over 6000 Buddhist works of art and other artifacts kept in the main museum in Kabul are also slated to be demolished. Omar has claimed that the famine that now plagues Afghanistan is God’s punishment for the failure of the people to pray five times a day as required by Islam.
According to an Italian bishop who recently visited Cuba, the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Havana recently published a document that includes an expression that worries the Cuban Church greatly: "It is time to ‘de-papalize’ Cuba." Pope John Paul II paid an historic visit to Cuba three years ago during which Fidel Castro embraced the pontiff and allowed him to perform an outdoor mass. Flavio Roberto Carraro, president of the Italian bishops’ Commission for the Evangelization of Peoples and Cooperation among Churches, said the communists want "to reduce the possibilities of the Church’s charitable aid to people, because if the Church helps the people, it means there is a need. And this would mean that the revolution has not succeeded in satisfying the people’s needs."
A United States delegation investigating religious freedom has conducted a five-day visit to Egypt and the Middle East. It was expected to meet both government and religious officials in the region. It planned to investigate the condition of the Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. Coptic advocates for religious tolerance often blame social and economic imbalances, particularly in the poor countryside, for fueling some religious tensions. Church and human rights officials, however blame police for not doing more to stop the January 2 killings, rioting, and looting that ran along sectarian lines. Violent communal clashes erupted in the village of Al Kosheh over the New Year’s weekend, leaving 20 Coptic Orthodox Christians and one Muslim dead. Scores of buildings were burned and shops looted in the surrounding area.
In February, the Coptic community reacted angrily when a court acquitted almost all those accused of massacring 21 Christians last year. The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned the American delegation’s visit, which it said showed a provocative approach to the rights and sovereignty of countries.
Riot police reinforcements were sent to the northern Indian city of Kanpur to quell a wave of communal violence. At least 15 people have died since clashes broke out in March between police and Muslims protesting against the alleged burning of a copy of the Koran by Hindu radicals. The Koran is reported to have been burnt in a protest in Delhi over the recent destruction of Buddhist statues by Afghanistan’s Taliban Islamic movement. That was followed by violent protests by a Muslim group in Kanpur, the Student Islamic Movement of India.
In the Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo, hundreds of Muslim Madurese have been killed and beheaded since February by indigenous Dayak tribesmen. More than 50,000 Madurese have fled or been evacuated from the province while many others are believed to be still hiding in the dense forests of the region.
Shoko Asahara, the founder of the AUM Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) movement which perpetrated the Sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995 may have become mentally incapacitated, say his lawyers. If so ruled, this would mean Asahara would escape punishment for the multiple charges he faces in the subway attack in which 12 people died. Meanwhile, the town of Sanwa in the Ibaraki Prefecture had a rally of over 1,000 people insisting that the AUM Shinrikyo movement (renamed Aleph) leave town. The group continues to maintain a facility there despite the expiration of its lease at the end of February. AUM spokesman Hiroshi Araki responded to the mayor that it had apologized for "past incidents" and taken remedial steps.
Over 35 people have been killed in sectarian violence that erupted in different parts of the country following the hanging of an activist of the extremist group, Sipah-e-Sihaba, on February 28 for murdering an Iranian diplomat 10 years ago. In response to this and other violence, the government has decided on a new law to ban the religious groups that engage in sectarian violence. It also directed provincial governments to strictly implement its orders to launch a crackdown on those who displayed weapons and made inflammatory speeches. Presided over by the military ruler Gen. Pervez Mushrraf, a joint meeting of the National Security Council and the federal cabinet took a serious note of spiraling sectarian violence between the extremist organizations from the majority Sunni and the minority Shia sects.
Shortly after a visit from French anti-cult official Alain Vivien, Romania has reintroduced a restrictive religion law that favors the Orthodox Church, which now refers to itself as the "Romanian Orthodox Church – National Church." Minority religious groups are gearing up to protest the legislation which would require state registration of all religious organizations. It is virtually identical to the measure that was withdrawn a year ago after most religious groups except the Orthodox Church protested. The bill creates two principal categories of religious organizations. If passed, the law would automatically recognize 14 denominations. It would be all but impossible for a religious association or group other than the 14 to be recognized.
On February 20, the Spanish Constitutional Court recognized the right of the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon to be officially recognized and registered as a religion. The court overturned two lower court judgments in making this finding. And English translation of the ruling can be found in the "what’s new" section at www.religiousfreedom.com. United States The US Supreme Court has turned down a California high school valedictorian’s argument that the school preventing him from giving a speech in which he planned to ask the audience to "accept God’s love" and live by "Jesus’ example" violated his civil rights. Chris Niemeyer had refused a request by his school to tone down the religious references in his speech.
Although dissident cleric Father Tadeus Nguyen Van Ly had been banned from traveling to the US to give oral testimony to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, he did manage to submit written testimony in February. He urged the US Congress not to ratify an historic bilateral trade pact because of rights abuses. He said Washington should not give support to Vietnam’s communists to "prolong their totalitarian dictatorship." Ly had been under close police surveillance since his release from a ten year prison stay in 1992.
A 75 year old Buddhist woman committed suicide by publicly setting herself on fire in late March with the last words, "Religious freedom for Viet Nam!" Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thu, who was head of the women’s association of the Hoa Hoa Buddhist sect, made the ultimate political statement in front of several hundred Hoa Hao followers in Tan Hoi village in the Mekong Delta. The Hoa Hao sect has several million adherents in Viet Nam and is officially recognized by the communist regime albeit suspiciously due to the sect’s armed opposition to communism during the Viet Nam war.
The self-immolation came shortly after the detention of the Hoa Hao sect leader Le Quang Liem, 82, his deputy, and several supporters. Liem’s arrest came only two weeks after he joined three other religious leaders, two Buddhists and two Catholics, to form the Vietnam Interfaith Council to promote religious freedom. One of the four was Father Tadeus Nguyen Van Ly who was arrested earlier in March for urging the US Congress not to ratify a trade pact with Vietnam.