Freedom of worship was harshly restricted again in China and Myanmar last year, with religious believers in China jailed and Muslims and Christians in Buddhist-majority Myanmar harassed by government and citizens’ groups, the U.S. State Department said in an annual report released on Tuesday.
In Vietnam, meanwhile, government authorities continued to harass religious groups, though the severity of their treatment “varied from region to region and among the central, provincial, and local levels,” according to the report.
In China, the State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report said, state authorities “physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups.”
Authorities in the country’s coastal Zhejiang province continued a campaign begun in 2014 to tear down Christian structures, including 600 crosses destroyed by the end of the year, while several church leaders resisting the demolition were detained and prosecuted.
“Throughout the country, there continued to be reports of deaths, in detention and otherwise,” of religious adherents, the report said, with the banned spiritual group Falun Gong reporting that dozens of its members had been killed.
Tibetans, Uyghurs repressed
Meanwhile, Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims in China were severely repressed during the year and were discriminated against in “employment, housing, and business opportunities,” the State Department said.
In western China’s Sichuan province, authorities demolished thousands of monastic dwellings in the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy and expelled their occupants, while in northwestern China’s region of Xinjiang, Uyghur children were barred from religious study, and restrictions were imposed on Muslim dress and practice deemed “extremist.”
“In December, a Xinjiang court sentenced a Christian woman, Ma Huichao, to three years in prison for ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order’ after holding a Bible study in her home in [the regional capital] Urumqi,” the State Department report said.
“A fellow congregant said that the Bible study was not a formal gathering—there were no pastors present and there were only a few people reading the Bible in Ma’s home.”
Churches, mosques blocked
In Myanmar, government authorities and nationalist Buddhist groups restricted the religious rights of Muslims and Christians, delaying permits to build houses of worship and in some cases halting the construction of mosques opposed by Muslim communities’ Buddhist neighbors.
“There were reports of killings, sexual abuse, arbitrary arrest, burning of structures, [and] continued detention of Rohingya Muslims,” the State Department said.
“[However], because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being based solely on religious identity.”
Meanwhile, religious and community groups in Myanmar worked throughout the year to counter hate speech and foster dialogue by hosting interfaith events and calling for legislation aimed at promoting religious harmony, according to the report.
In Vietnam, government authorities continued last year to restrict the activities of religious groups, assaulting and detaining church members, restricting their travel, and confiscating church land for development projects.
Groups not registered with the state were especially severely treated, the State Department said.
In January 2016, the head pastor of the unregistered Montagnard Degar Evangelical Church in Gia Lai province died from internal injuries inflicted in a police beating the month before, while a Mennonite pastor serving an 11-year prison term for “undermining state unity” was beaten by guards in February.
The pastor’s wife said that he and other prisoners had previously found “bits of glass and copper wire in their prison food,” according to the report.
Raids were also made on Catholic churches, unregistered Buddhist temples, and Bible study groups, with church leaders and parishioners sometimes beaten by assailants dressed in plain clothes but apparently supervised by police.
“Government treatment of religious groups varied from region to region and among the central, provincial, and local levels,” though, the report said.