November 19, 2009
IN CHINA, the knock on the door in the small hours of the morning followed by acquaintance with a police truncheon is not, unfortunately, a memory of an unlamented past.
That was how the nation’s Christians learnt a couple of months ago that another wave of crackdowns had begun.
On September 13, some 400 military police began arresting and beating leaders of one of the largest underground churches, the 50,000-member Fushan church in Linfen, according to Bob Fu, director of the Washington-based China Aid agency. Many are still in jail or nursing their injuries.
Other large churches in Shanghai and Beijing, allowed to operate relatively untroubled for three years, were suddenly declared illegal, the worship places locked, and church members harassed, intimidated and threatened.
But it’s not just Christians. China is an equal opportunity persecutor, targeting political dissidents, possible dissidents, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and the Falun Gong.
And it’s not just China. Two years ago, the British Secret Service reported that 200 million Christians in 60 countries around the world were or risked being persecuted for their faith, while Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of tribal religions and many others are also suffering. Around the globe, religious persecution seems to be getting more intense.
The US independent Committee on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), in its 2009 report to the President and Congress, named 13 countries of particular concern for persecution, with another 14 on its watch list.
The worst countries are mainly communist or Muslim (see panel). And, in Muslim countries, the victims are often Muslims. Think of the Taliban-style terror in Pakistan, with suicide bombers attacking markets, schools and the military; or the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq; or oppression of the wrong ”sort” of Muslim in many countries, from Iran to Saudi Arabia.
Sometimes the persecutor is the state, sometimes the state tacitly approves, sometimes it simply stands by. But, many commentators say, it would be a mistake to see the motivation for religious persecution or violence as purely religious.
Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s British-based senior director of law and policy, says that although violence is often perpetrated by non-state actors (for example, Muslim pogroms against Christians or Hindus against Muslims), politicians are usually responsible for stirring up trouble for reasons connected with power or land.
And politics hampers efforts to combat religious persecution, too. The CIRF was set up by Congress to link US foreign policy with human rights, but political reality often intervenes, as it acknowledges in its annual report.
According to commentator Liz Kendal, since the global financial crisis, the United States has lost leverage, especially with China.
”It’s always been political,” she says. ”The US never exerted much pressure on Saudi Arabia, but it made a big difference in some poor countries like Uzbekistan. But as Uzbekistan turned back towards Russia, the US lost leverage and persecution picked up again.”
Kendal, who monitors persecution from Melbourne for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission, has noticed some disturbing trends, particularly in Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Egypt.
”Pogroms in Pakistan used to be militants coming in, raising hostility and leading violence. Now it’s ordinary citizens killing their next-door neighbours. I regard it as a pre-genocidal situation.
”The same thing has happened in India. The Orissa violence was perpetrated from within. Local Hindus burned and macheted their neighbours.” (Last year, dozens of Christians were killed and 50,000 displaced in systematic attacks by Hindu extremists in the Indian state.)
Like the CIRF, which criticises inactive governments, Kendal says impunity for perpetrators is dangerous and increasing. ”In Pakistan, militant ideology has been allowed to spread without being challenged. It’s about Saudi Arabian ideological expansion. It’s not the Taliban rising up in the Punjab but local madrassa leaders.”
In Egypt, she says, matters have dramatically worsened for Coptic Christians. ”The rise in fundamentalism is splitting the country. Coptic girls are relentlessly kidnapped off the streets, raped, forced to marry a Muslim and never seen again.”
The authorities are not interested, she says, because they are trying to appease fundamentalists by adopting more elements of sharia, or Islamic law. ”This mandates that Christians can’t take Muslims to court. In Pakistan, a recent development is enforced ‘reconciliation’. When Muslims rape your wife, burn down your house and stab you, you can’t go to court.”
Amnesty International’s Widney Brown says India is a fascinating place for ideological communal violence, with attacks on Christians, Muslims, Dalits (untouchables) and tribal religions. In Gujarat province, governed by the Hindu extremist BJP party, the rhetoric is clearly designed to keep power by vilifying Muslims, she says.
”What’s happening is that political conflicts about power and land are being described as religious because think it’s a way to inflame people’s passions. But we are also seeing more sectarian violence driven by religion. Iraq and Pakistan are classic examples. It is usually Sunni-Shia, and in Iraq it’s obviously about power. The Sunnis had political power and now they don’t, and feel marginalised.”
Another factor is that news travels fast today, Brown says. Violence in Xinjiang between Han Chinese and (ethnic Turkish) Uighurs was sparked by trouble in Guangdong, thousands of kilometres away, after mischievous rumours spread over the internet.
South Asia specialist Robin Jeffrey agrees. Former Australian governor-general William Slim, in his memoirs about his time in the Indian army in the 1920s, wrote of how Hindus would drive a pig through a mosque or Muslims would kill a cow in front of a temple when they wanted to provoke a riot.
In Moghul times, Jeffrey says, Hindus and Muslims would face off, ”but what happened in the village stayed in the village. Now it’s on the front pages, and probably on TV in two or three hours.”
Jeffrey, a research professor at the National University of Singapore, says India is complicated because it is undergoing massive industrialisation of a rural economy. This offers groups such as the BJP large recruitable crowds.
”For BJP people it’s a good cheap thrill, no shortage of young men to send off to beat other people up. Where there’s a BJP government, they control the police and have cadres they’ve promised this excitement.”
Monash University politics lecturer Waleed Aly says much so-called religious violence is nationalist aspirations refracted through a religious prism, usually disputes over land or resources. But social groups have evolved around religions, so that’s the way conflict is often expressed.
Tensions for Muslims in the southern Philippines, southern Thailand, Chechnya and Kashmir fit this model, he argues, as did Kosovo and Bosnia. ”I’m sceptical of the suggestion that there are people who go around killing people for no reason but that they belong to a religious group. It becomes a feature of the conflict but not an explanation of it.
”Radical websites list all the places in the world where Muslims are on the receiving end of military action and conflate them all as part of a grand conspiracy against Islam. The minute you assess a conflict as religious you are privileging one factor. This is borne out by the fact that so much conflict is intra-religious.”
China is in the international eye because US President Barack Obama is visiting – and conspicuously not saying much about human rights, while he pursues economic and climate change agendas. Chinese church leader and human rights activist Fan Yafeng complained this week that Obama is ”the weakest US president on human rights in 30 years”.
China Aid’s Bob Fu, who was forced to flee China in 1997, says the US Administration gave China the green light to persecute earlier this year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised non-interference, and pursued other policies of appeasement.
”It emboldened them to take these steps and not worry about the international consequences. Obama hasn’t handled this issue well. It is seen as appeasement policies and will hurt US interests long term,” Fu says.
The CIRF wrote to Obama before his China trip, pleading for him to raise religious freedom and arguing that persecution should not be ignored in pursuit of other concerns. ”How the Chinese Government deals with its religious minorities and human rights defenders will affect issues of domestic stability and economic development, the transition of China to a rule-of-law system, and the demands of millions of Chinese for greater freedoms and government transparency – all critical concerns for a growing US-China relationship,” it said.
Fu also thinks China is at the crossroads. The country now has up to 130 million Christians – far more than members of the Communist Party. He says Chinese are attracted by the sincerity and love they find in the churches, particularly the way members trust each other in a society in which trust is rare. Unlike the former Communist maxim ”one more Christian, one less Chinese”, Fu says faith makes Chinese better citizens, more active members of civil society, but also less open to government control.
Antonio Chan, vice-chairman of Asian Outreach Australia, believes that Christianity has grown beyond the Government’s ability to control, both in numbers and in attracting professionals and business people who have money and influence. ”The growth is so great the Government can’t do anything about it. It’s a weight they cannot stop.”
THE WORST PERSECUTORS
Military regime with appalling rights record, plus extra persecution of ethnic minority Muslims and Christians.
Marked deterioration for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong members systematically tortured, Christians increasingly repressed.
Members of non-approved religions imprisoned and mistreated, including Christians and Muslims.
Worsening conditions for nearly all non-Shiite religious groups, including torture and executions. Heightened anti-Semitism.
Government commits and tolerates severe abuses, especially against Christians, Sabean Mandaeans and Yazidis.
Little official response to violent sectarian conflicts, and expansion of sharia law has created climate of impunity leading to thousands of deaths.
One of the world’s most repressive regimes, with no freedom of thought or religion.
Little official response to religiously motivated violence by extremist Islamic groups, persecution of Christians and minorities.
All but the official (Wahhabi) Islam banned in public, violence towards non-Muslims and disfavoured Muslims.
Systematic violations, particularly targeting Christians and traditional religions but also non-favoured Islam.
Repressive laws and harassment of religious groups.
Systematic rights abuses and harsh repression of Muslims and Christians.
Egregious abuses and restrictions on religious freedom, ethnic minority Buddhists and Christians persecuted.
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tajikstan, Turkey, Venezuela.