US Report Catalogs Religious Freedom Abuses in Authoritarian Asian States

By Richard Finney
china-churches-07272015.jpg Cross is shown on a church in Zhejiang province, July 27, 2015.
Photo courtesy of a church member.

Religious freedoms were harshly restricted in China and Myanmar over the past year, with Chinese authorities removing hundreds of crosses from Christian churches in a coastal province and the government in Myanmar limiting the rights of Muslims and other religious minorities, the U.S. State Department said in an annual report released on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, government authorities continued to harass unregistered religious groups, especially those suspected of involvement in political activity, while in Laos national authorities failed to prevent abuses by officials in remote areas of the country, according to the report.

In China, the State Department’s 2014 International Religious Freedom Report said, government authorities “tortured, physically abused, detained, arrested, sentenced to prison, or harassed a number of religious adherents” belonging to both registered and unregistered groups.

Hundreds of crosses and steeples deemed illegal structures were forcibly removed from churches in Zhejiang province, and in some cases a number of prominent churches, including Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou city, were demolished, the report said.

Local authorities also pressured religious believers to join state-controlled religious associations and used coercive measures, including confinement and abuse in detention centers, to punish members of unregistered groups, the State Department said.

Restrictions meanwhile continued in Uyghur and Tibetan minority areas in China, the State Department said, with bans imposed on the wearing by Muslim Uyghurs of Islamic veils or other clothing associated with “religious extremism,” and limits placed on the numbers of monks and nuns allowed to enroll in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

“Although authorities permitted some traditional religious ceremonies and practices” in Tibetan areas, authorities also often “restricted or canceled religious festivals, [and] at times forbade monks from traveling to villages to conduct religious ceremonies,” the report said.

Discrimination, travel bans

In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, Muslim, Christian, and other religious minorities often “faced physical abuse, arbitrary arrest and detention, restrictions on religious practice and travel, and discrimination in employment and access to citizenship,” the State Department said.

Government officials frequently withheld permission to build or repair mosques or other places of worship not belonging to the country’s Buddhist majority, the report said, while Buddhists were often favored by “unwritten government policies” for promotion into higher civil service or military ranks.

In Vietnam, authorities continued during the year to restrict the activities of religious groups operating outside of state control, with group members reporting “various forms of governmental harassment,” the State Department said.

Measures taken against unregistered groups included “assault, short term detentions, prosecutions, monitoring, restrictions on travel, and denials of registration and/or other permissions,” according to the report.

Protestant denominations in Vietnam’s Central Highlands reported discrimination against them by local authorities, while in June police and state-directed mobs in southern Vietnam’s Binh Duong province launched a campaign of harassment against an unregistered congregation of Mennonites.

Government forces harassed the community throughout the year, raiding Bible classes and detaining and beating church members, and at times preventing followers from leaving their homes, the report said.

Meanwhile, national laws protecting religious freedoms in Laos were routinely flouted by authorities in the provinces, the State Department said, adding that abuses were aimed most often at Protestant groups, “whether or not officially recognized.”

Attempted forced renunciations, detentions, and imprisonments were reported throughout the year, the report said.

“[But] government authorities often blamed the victims rather than the persecuting officials,” the report said.

“Even when the central government officials acknowledged certain actions, they often said the actions taken by local officials were not based on religion, but on local officials’ duty to maintain order.”


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