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Is religious freedom losing ground?

According to the Pew Research Centre’s Restrictions on Religion report, issued on January 14, there are 5.3 billion people facing harsh constraints on religious freedom. 

Most countries have signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his/her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Article 18).

This year’s report from the think tank states that 74 per cent of the world’s population experienced high levels of social hostility toward religion, up from 52 per cent in 2011. 

In some countries the level of social hostility toward religion was high. A common problem is sectarian conflict.

Globally, government restrictions on religion remained relatively unchanged between 2011 and 2012, with 64 per cent of the world living under harsh legal and political conditions. 

Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Maldives and Syria imposed the strictest government restrictions. 

These include political efforts to ban conversions, limit preaching or granting privileges to some religious groups others don’t have. 

Social hostilities include armed conflict, terrorism, sectarian violence, harassment, intimidation or abuse motivated by religious factors. 

The report says there was a sharp rise of hostilities in China, which, for the first time in the survey’s six-year history, scored a high on the level of religious strife.

Home to more than 1.3 billion people, the country experienced an increase in reports of religion-related terrorism, mob violence and sectarian conflict in recent years, possibly linked to government restrictions on Muslim minorities.

The report also found there was a rise in the number of countries in which women were harassed over religious dress, mobs turned violent over religious issues and sectarian violence escalated. 

Christians were harassed in 110 countries, Muslims in 109 and Jews in 71. Harassment against Hindus, Buddhists, folk religionists and members of other faith traditions also increased by country.

“The Pew report is a chilling reminder that religious freedom is losing ground in much of the world,” Charles Haynes, the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington DC, the United States of America, said. 

He noted, “The rise in social hostilities toward religion in 2012 is a harbinger of much worse to come.”

The daily newspapers also report on sectarian violence in countries that are going through civil wars, such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

These countries have a long history and their religions: Syriac, Coptic and Chaldean, are some of the earliest Christian Churches in the world. 

For centuries they have been able to live side by side with other religious or non-religious groups, but in these past few years, Christians have had their churches bombed and many people have died. 

They fear for their lives because they have become victims of religious fundamentalism and Islamist extremism in the struggle they have with their governments. 

At the beginning, these people were of one mind and wanted to overthrow corrupt governments, but in frustration many started to turn on Christian groups, which some extremists regard as being symbols of a foreign invasion or presence.


Can religions coexist?

We know there have been troubles in China with ethnic groups and different religions, but sometimes we hear good news about how they live together peacefully.

Christianity, Buddhism and Islam can be found dwelling side by side in some ethnic areas. 

Recently, an article in the China Daily reported on the ancient town of Yanjing in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where Catholicism and Buddhism literally stand face to face. 

The town, is comprised of two villages and is home to two ethnic groups, the Naxi and the Tibetans. 

Residents in the Upper Yanjing village are mostly Tibetan and Catholic, while those in Lower Yanjing are Naxi and Tibetan Buddhist. 

Despite different ethnicities and beliefs, they live in harmony today. There is only one Catholic church in Tibet and the Buddhists feel free to circle it every day for prayers.

Two French missionaries brought Catholicism to the area in 1865. Historians say the pair succeeded because they wisely adapted to local conditions. Staying first with villagers, they gave free medical treatment and helped the poor. 

They also offered alms to a local Buddhist monastery and won permission from monks and devotees to start missionary work. 

They soon purchased land from the monastery and built a church. 

Their charitable efforts included handing out land to local farmers, helping them build houses, taking in orphans and the poor, as well as establishing a school and clinic. 

The work gradually fostered a few Catholic believers among the villagers who had been Buddhist.


Two religions

Like many Tibetan homes, Zaxi Wangdui’s living room has a shrine, but the figures are of Christ and the Madonna. His Buddha statue sits to the left of the shrine. He is a Buddhist, while his wife and their three children are Catholic.

From behind the Buddha statue, Zaxi takes out his Buddhist scriptures and chants them every night. “We have gotten used to it and are always at peace. We help each other and I don’t mind being the religious minority in the family,” Zaxi said with a smile. 

Catholicism in Yanjing has experienced many setbacks throughout history. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, missionaries in the region were expelled. 

At one time, a local Buddhist monastery tried to stop residents from believing in Catholic teaching, while Catholic families in Upper Yanjing wouldn’t accept Buddhists into their families. 

The last major conflict between the monastery and the Church happened in the 1940s. Through mediation by the local government, the church became a religious site again in 1951 and the two religions entered an era of coexistence. Catholic followers increased significantly after this.


Christian unity

Early each year in January, Christians of all denominations come together to pray for unity, understanding and religious tolerance in different parts of the world. 

Here in Hong Kong, as well as in many countries of the world, Christians have a week of prayer in different Churches for Christian Unity. 

This is also referred to as an ecumenical gathering. Ecumenism is the furthering of religious unity among the different Christian faiths.

The true meaning of Christian unity was echoed by Jesus when he prayed for his disciples: 


I pray for those who will believe in me that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17: 20-23).


Today, hostility and conflicts among nations have escalated. The most frustrating scenario is that the Church has not been able to set a good example of unity and mutual acceptance.

There is still a long way to go on the road of Christian unity, with many obstacles ahead. For us, we all need to pray to God for unity and better testimony. 

May the Lord mercifully grant wisdom and love in grace so that we may be more embracing and forgiving like Christ. Let us look for the courage to confess to our Father in Heaven our failures in combating division.

Let us also pray that God will help us to be aware of the division of Christ and the pain coming from it, while at the same time we preach the gospel and work to realise the heavenly kingdom.

Let us make our best effort to build a centre of reconciliation within the Church and seek Christian unity in its fullest sense (Christian Unity 2014, Joint Statement).

Pope Francis said, “We must fight all forms of racism, intolerance and anti-Semitism. Sadly, I am thinking of the suffering, marginalisation and real persecution that some Christians are experiencing in different parts of the world.” 


He concluded, “We should feel involved and join forces to promote a culture of encounter, respect, understanding and mutual forgiveness.” MC