“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
(Taken from the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1786)
On Monday the US Department of State issued its annual report on International Religious Freedom; a report that it has written for the last 13 years despite never being asked to. It’s like an over-zealous school kid who assigns himself extra homework and then boasts about how smart he is, and all the while his classmates collectively wish he would just fuck the fuck off.
The report for 2011 states that “too many people live under governments that abuse or restrict freedom of religion” and blacklists China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea as “chronic violators” of religious freedom. The China section reads as follows:
There was a marked deterioration during 2011 in the government’s respect for and protection of religious freedom in China. In the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas, this included increased restrictions on religious practice, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. Official interference in the practice of these religious traditions exacerbated grievances and contributed to at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans in 2011. The repression tightened in the lead-up to and during politically and religiously sensitive anniversaries and events…
China only allows groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) to register with the government and legally hold worship services. Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official patriotic religious association or Catholics professing loyalty to the Vatican, are not permitted to register as legal entities. Proselytizing in public or unregistered places of worship is not permitted. Some religious and spiritual groups are outlawed.
Tibetan Buddhists in China are not free to venerate the Dalai Lama and encounter severe government interference in religious practice. The government continued to severely repress Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and other parts of China. Crackdowns on Christian house churches, such as the Shouwang church in Beijing, continued. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members are required to be atheists and are generally discouraged from participating in religious activities.
Unsurprisingly, China’s reaction to the report has been somewhat angry. An article posted on Xinhua’s English language website accuses the report of being “nothing but a political tool used by the U.S. government to exert pressure on other countries, mostly deemed as its rivals”, and takes exception to the way in which the U.S. continually imposes “its own standards of religious policies, regardless of the differences in history, cultural tradition, and economic and political realities.” [insert slow clap of approval here]
The article could have stopped there and still achieved its purpose, but it then goes on to defend China against the charges levelled against it. In essence, it argues that China only clamps down on extremist groups that use religion as a cloak for their political motivations, and that this does not equate to abuse of religious freedom. I have to say that while I was in China I got no sense that religious freedom was restricted. The contract I signed stated that I must not use my teaching position as a platform from which to preach any political or religious views, but I think this should be the rule in all countries. Whenever I visited a temple; whether Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian; I always saw dozens of people lighting incense and praying at the feet of bronze statues and shrines, and nobody ever came to lock them up. I even saw several active Christian churches, some of which dated back to European occupation in the 19th century, and again, not a beating or arrest in sight.
Frankly, I don’t think the Chinese government could care less about people’s individual religious beliefs. What they are concerned about is any mass organisation that could threaten the authority of one party rule. Suppressing political freedom may not be any better than suppressing religious freedom, but it is an important distinction nonetheless, and one that the 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom seems to have completely overlooked.
The report ends with a conclusion which states that despite the abuses of religious freedom listed above, other countries have shown that positive change is possible. Countries on that list include Turkey, Ukraine, France, and oh, what a surprise, the United States. However, rather than explaining what the U.S. has done to improve religious freedom domestically, it merely details the interventions it has made in countries such as Egypt, Burma, and Iraq. The implication is that religious freedom in the United States is not even an issue, and I think it is the arrogance of this belief that countries like China object to the most.
I would love it if China started releasing annual reports on the state of religious freedom in the U.S. They could survey Muslims in America and ask them how they feel about being profiled at airports, or seeing bumper stickers that say “Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11″. They could ask homosexuals how they feel about being told they’re not allowed to marry the person they love because a 2000 year-old book says so. They could ask impregnated rape victims how they feel about Republican Rick Santorum telling them that they should keep their baby because it is a “gift from God”. They could ask young women how they feel about some extremist religious groups trying to take away their right to practice safe sex. They could ask non-creationists how they feel about their children’s right to receive an education based on reason being under constant threat.
They could do all of these things, but they’ll probably just continue to focus on their own internal affairs before casting judgement on others. What a strange concept.