Religious Freedom Setback

Governments in Vietnam, North Korea, China, and Burma are criticized in a religious freedom survey.
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Hundreds of Chinese Muslims pray at the Nujie Mosque in Beijing during the Eid al-Fitr festival, Sept. 10, 2010.
Hundreds of Chinese Muslims pray at the Nujie Mosque in Beijing during the Eid al-Fitr festival, Sept. 10, 2010.

There is no let-up in religious persecution in East Asia, a new study shows, as Vietnam uses excessive force on religious groups, North Korea executes Christians of an underground church, and China forces the return home of citizens involved in religious activism and punishes them.

"There were credible reports" that the Chinese government "attempted to forcibly return Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims from countries in the Middle East and South Asia to China because of their religious activities and defense of religious freedom," according to a U.S. State Department annual report on religious freedom.

The report, released Wednesday, also said the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had "documented the forcible return of three Tibetan Buddhists, including one monk, to China from Nepal, the first confirmed since 2003."

Following the July 2009 deadly protests in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Chinese government increased already tight restrictions on Uyghur Muslim religious practices, the report said.

The report, which tracks the religious freedom level of nearly 200 countries and territories across the globe, was compiled by the State Department with assistance from NGOs, think tanks, news outlets, religious groups, and other governments.

The Chinese government's strong opposition to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, had also led to severe restrictions on Tibetan Buddhist religious practice, the report said.

Three reportedly executed

In North Korea, often cited as one of the world's worst abusers of human rights, 23 Christians were arrested in May 2010 for belonging to an underground church in Kuwol-dong, Pyongsong city, South Pyongan province, according to reports and a South Korean nongovernmental organization.

"Reportedly three were executed, and the others were sent to Yoduk political prison camp," the State Department report said.

North Korea has stepped up executions of Christians, some of them in public, rights groups in South Korea have said. 

North Korean refugees and defectors who had been in prison say that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates.

In Vietnam, "significant problems" related to religious freedom remained, including occasional harassment and excessive use of force against members of religious groups by some local government officials, the report said.

There were also delays in approving registrations of Protestant congregations, as well as reports of harassment of Protestant congregations in some areas, it said.

The government has not yet approved a translation of the Bible into Hmong, the language of an ethnic minority, after five years of pending application, the report said.

"There were also instances of government participation in, or sanction of, violence against members of religious groups."

Country of concern

Religious freedom groups have been expressing concern over what they see as an increase in human rights abuses and religious freedom violations in Vietnam.

They have urged President Barack Obama's administration to re-designate Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern”—a label that the U.S. government gives to countries for ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.

When asked about the issue, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said that any designation of countries onto the "concern" list would be done in the "next couple of months."

He said he would visit Vietnam in December for a dialogue on human rights, adding that religious freedom issues would also be discussed.

In military-ruled Burma, the report said the junta "systematically" restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom.

Many of the Buddhist monks arrested in the violent crackdown that followed the pro-democracy demonstrations of September 2007, including prominent activist monk U Gambira, remained in prison serving long sentences, it said.

The junta was also criticized for practicing "the severest forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination" on Burma's Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority.

Positive developments

The report also cited some positive developments.

For example in China, it said reports suggested a growth in the practice of traditional Chinese religions, such as Chinese Buddhism.

Beijing also supported the social service work of registered religious groups and allowed some foreign faith-based groups to provide social services.

In Vietnam, it said, the government permitted the expansion of charitable activities by religious organizations.

The Catholic Church, Protestant congregations, and other smaller religious groups reported that their ability to gather and worship generally improved in Vietnam, the report said.

Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.





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