delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998
Religious revival is taking place around the world at an accelerated rate. In Peru, one church is established every eight hours, while even in secularized Latin American countries such as Uruguay religious interest has noticeably increased in recent years. Eastern Europeans, now freer from government oppression, are earnestly seeking spiritual answers to complex reality. In Africa, hundreds of thousands attend frequent religious gatherings spanning the whole continent.
China and other countries in Asia have seen a tremendous religious growth, especially among Christians. Thailand, where Buddhism is the state religion and there is an overwhelming Buddhist majority, has experienced a growth of Christian churches in the last decade, which has in turn revived attempts for state protection of Buddhism.
Despite the signs of a spiritual revival worldwide, religious freedom, which is the foundation for any other freedom, has come under attack by people in both the secular and religious realm.
Religious fundamentalism in the Middle East is on the rise, accompanied by increased intolerance toward different religious beliefs. In Latin America and eastern Europe, traditional or established churches are reacting against the presence of newer churches—which governments call “sects”—and are attempting to use the coercive power of the state to control this new phenomenon.
Africa still is struggling to democratize and cannot yet guarantee religious freedom for the most part. In Asia, totalitarian governments, the rise of nationalism, and official religions have significantly and negatively affected the status of religious freedom. To complicate matters, some leaders of religious organizations have used their spiritual influence to manipulate and abuse their members and even incite them to commit suicide. Still others have made criminal use of religious institutions. The situation has sparked a debate on the limits of tolerance and has reawakened in some governments a tendency to control and restrict religious organizations, further undermining religious liberty in general.
In Africa, there is a whole range of degrees in which discrimination and persecution take place. Zambia has a minimal amount, if any, of religious violations. South Africa is going through a miraculous transition. There is more freedom, but there are also increasing challenges in a multicultural society. Nigeria and Zaire have even greater restrictions; ethnic and religious violence between Christians and Muslims lead repeatedly to the destruction of churches and mosques, and persecution and mass murder have become more prevalent.
Sudan represents the greatest violator among religious persecutors in Africa. Apostasy by known Muslims is punishable by death, and the country is torn by mass displacements, genocide, massacres, and even slavery. Open Doors World Watch lists three African countries—Somalia, Comoro Islands, and Sudan—among the top five most serious violators of religious liberty worldwide.
As with Africa, Asia also has countries covering a wide range of extremes, from committing minor to major abuses of religious freedom. South Korea shows no or minor violations. Religious discrimination begins with Nepal, where the constitution forbids evangelizing and conversion. The situation worsens with India, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia, where violations of medium severity exist. India must deal with social tensions between Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians causing physical destruction, kidnappings, and discrimination.
In Thailand, Buddhism is the state religion, and the king must be Buddhist according to the constitution. There are also restrictions, especially for new Christian churches, in Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion. Missionaries are restricted and must be registered. In the Philippines, Muslims are forbidden to adopt another faith, especially in the sovereign state. In Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia there are regular violations. In Pakistan, many are imprisoned and some are tortured or face the death penalty due to charges brought under the blasphemy law.
Sri Lanka faces internal strife, as civil war rages between Buddhist Singhalese and Hindu Tamils. In Indonesia, the construction and renovation of churches is controlled by levy of taxes; the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, Muslims, and atheists are completely banned. China commits frequent violations, some serious, especially against Christians and also against Buddhists in Tibet. China requires all religious organizations to join the state-controlled churches, thereby restricting their activities. Those who fail to register or who criticize the government face imprisonment, torture, and/or execution. There is further suppression in Tibet. Any practice of faith that is not controlled by China is severely restricted.
Operation World reports that the Asian population is divided as follows: 25 percent, no known religious affiliation; 24 percent Hindu; 20 percent Buddhist; 17 percent Muslim; almost 8 percent Christian; and the rest other and new religions.
Eastern Europe is relatively different from the previous two regions, as its people generally have greater religious freedom. In Bulgaria Muslims have been expelled, while Protestant churches are referred to as sects and are under constant harassment, especially by groups affiliated with the Orthodox Church. In Lithuania, members of the Russian Orthodox Church who settled in Lithuania during communist rule now face discrimination and persecution, as do new religious groups. Russia, though no longer communist, still exerts control by placing serious restrictions on foreign religious organizations, requiring that congregations be registered under stiff conditions.
In Latin America, the level of religious tolerance is greater than in the past. In Bolivia, for example, anybody who would not support the separation of church and state once could face the death penalty as a traitor. This was changed in the constitution in 1939. The influence of established and, in a few cases, official churches hampers the work of newer religious organizations and churches. The majority of the countries in Latin America have been homogeneously Roman Catholic, but that is beginning to change with the rapid growth of Protestant churches, which now comprise up to 35 percent of the population of some Latin American countries.
Argentina and Chile currently present minor violations of basic religious liberties. Both countries have legislation pending that could substantially affect, positively or negatively, the situation of Protestant and other churches. Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay have occasional violations, primarily against Protestants. Brazil and Colombia have some violations of medium severity of basic religious liberties, with increasing levels of restrictions on mission work and, in some instances, murder of missionaries, mainly by terrorists and other forces.
Mexico still has legal restrictions against all churches. Mexico shows a pattern of intolerance, especially toward Protestant Christians in the southern state of Chiapas. Cuba has an even greater level of oppression; church processions are seldom allowed, and missionary work is prohibited. Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have serious restrictions on their work. Recently there has been a crackdown on house churches, which has resulted in the imprisonment of some religious leaders.
The Middle East and North Africa region is one of extremes, with both turmoil and danger. Countries such as Jordan commit few violations, while others, such as Saudi Arabia, commit continuous and very serious violations of basic religious liberties. Israel commits some violations of medium severity: Arab citizens and Messianic Jews do not have the same rights as other Jews. Iraq perpetrates regular violations, generally due to the repressiveness of the government. Egypt commits frequent violations, sometimes serious, especially against Coptic Christians and others. Muslims who convert in Egypt face legal and social pressure ranging from ostracism to torture and murder. Iran commits frequent serious violations. The government is dominated by the Shiite elite and tries to enforce its orthodox views by arrest, arbitrary execution, and control of the media and active security forces.
Saudi Arabia is frequently rated as the top violator of religious liberty. Open Doors’ World Watch list names Saudi Arabia and Iran among the five worst violators of religious liberty. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria is a matter of growing concern.
In general, it is clear that in most Islamic countries not only Christians and Jews but Muslims themselves do not have liberty of conscience, liberty to choose and change their religion, liberty to make up their own minds, and the liberty to be free citizens.
Three major world religions can claim their birth in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three now present the foundation for intense rivalry. Although the region is predominantly Muslim, the remainder of the population is Christian and Jewish, as well as African traditional and other religions.
So, what are the regional trends and threats around the world? In terms of Africa, as we have seen, either laws are lacking to properly protect religious freedom or enforcement of existing laws is lacking. Sudan has forced Islamization of religious minorities. Lagging economic development helped create the civil war that the country has experienced since 1955. Over the last four years, about one million people have died as a result; since the 1980s, two million people have sought refuge elsewhere in Sudan and in neighboring countries.
In Asia, there is growing nationalism and totalitarianism. More Christians are imprisoned for their faith in China than in any other country. In Pakistan, continued abuse of blasphemy laws is a matter of great concern, especially for Christians.
In Latin America and eastern Europe, the threats are totalitarianism and intolerant established churches. In the fall of 1997, the Russian government, in connection with the historic Russian Orthodox Church, passed a federal law on freedom of conscience and religious association that discriminates against new religious groups and foreign mission work. As a result, several churches have been closed in the last few months, and at least one American missionary was forced to return to the United States. In Latin America, in the last 30 years, over 30,000 Indians were evicted from Chiapas State in Mexico due to their conversion to evangelical Christianity.
The pattern in the Middle East is one of forced Islamization, which even Muslims don’t like. They have called us by telephone and told us they want to exercise their conscience. But the Saudi Arabian government, for example, insists that all citizens be Muslim. According to their laws, Islam is the official religion. In Kuwait, a man who converted to Christianity was tried and convicted as an apostate. The court said that kind of apostate should be put to death.
Unfortunately, religious discrimination and even persecution continues to be a reality in developing countries. Authorities act as lords and kings, not as what they really are-servants of the community. Worst yet, religious discrimination and persecution is frequently justified in the name of economic and social rights. But we must say firmly today that no amount of social and economic comfort will ever satisfy the hunger and thirst of our conscience to express itself freely and unrestrictedly, regardless of the object of our faith or lack of it. It is our greatest duty to defend our conscience and the free exercise of our conscience, which is our most sacred property.