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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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NORTH KOREA: Religious freedom non-existent, but much still unknown

Two recent reports based on testimony from North Korean refugees – one by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom - have confirmed earlier findings that religious freedom does not exist in North Korea, that local people are aware of state-sponsored acts of religious persecution and that the only state-approved religion is Juche, or self-reliance, which is closely allied to the cult of the deceased leader Kim Il-Sung. Some interviewees claimed they had witnessed or heard of extreme punishments, even death, meted out to religious believers, others recounted how some religious believers were spared such punishments. Christian organisation Open Doors has noted that North Koreans arriving in China are usually very opposed to religion in general and Christianity in particular as a result of the long-term and regular state indoctrination to which they had been subjected. Visitors to Pyongyang have told Forum 18 News Service that no regular worship takes place at the three official Christian churches in the city and that Buddhist monasteries elsewhere are neglected cultural relics.

CHINA: Despite new Regulations, religious policy still under strain

One year on from the March 2005 Religious Affairs Regulations their effects are difficult to judge, and repressive actions continue against many communities. China's religious policies are under increasing strain. Even the definition of "religion" – especially a "legal religion" – is debated among officials, and a comprehensive religion law (as opposed to the Regulations) is awaited. The government seems to favour a law focusing on control of religion, but many religious leaders would prefer a law focusing on protecting religious believers' rights. Underlying the debate – and the increasing strain on government policy – is the fact that religious faith and practice of all kinds is rapidly growing in China, making the ideological foundation of religious control increasingly unreal. The key question facing the government is, will it seek to create a better environment for religious practice or will it resist genuine reform? Resisting reform may - sadly and unnecessarily – be the most likely direction of current policy.

TURKMENISTAN: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.

CHINA: Xinjiang - Controls tighten on Muslims and Catholics

A Muslim in the Ili-Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in China's north-western Xinjiang region has complained of ever tighter restrictions on Muslims, even since the ban on the Sala Sufi order in August and closure of two local mosques. "Now that the Sufi believers have been dealt with, traditional Sunni Muslims are being persecuted," Abdu Raheman told Forum18. He says the authorities have arrested some Muslims in possession of "unauthorised" religious literature and have ordered some Muslim young men to shave off their beards. Forum 18 learnt that priests and those active in Catholic parishes have been put under surveillance, while – in the absence of native priests - Orthodox Christians complain they are still being denied a priest from abroad. One Protestant said an underground church would not even try to register as it feared repercussions on its members when registration is refused.

CHINA: Xinjiang - How long will arrested Sufi Muslims be held?

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to find out why the government of the Ili-Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture of China's north-western Xinjiang Region banned the Sala Sufi Muslim order as a "dangerous" group in August. "I'm not prepared to voice an opinion on whether or not this order is harmful," a professor from Beijing's Institute of Nationalities told Forum 18. But she denied that if any practitioners had been arrested it was for their religious beliefs. The German-based World Uyghur Congress says 179 people have been held. Local Muslim Abdu Raheman told Forum 18 that the practitioners were seized by the security services. "There was no court case against them, so no-one knows how long they will spend behind bars." He views the moves – which also include closures of mosques and seizures of religious literature - as part of a campaign against local Huis, ethnic Chinese Muslims. "The religious practices of the Huis bring out the international nature of Islam, and that aggravates the authorities."

CHINA: Is central or local government responsible for religious freedom violations?

On 2 August 2005 public security officials in Hubei province raided a meeting of Protestant house church leaders, while on 1 August in Xinjiang region authorities arrested a Muslim instructor and 37 of her students. A week earlier, police raided a Mass held by a Vatican-loyal Catholic priest in Fujian region. A central problem in analysing the relationship between the central government and the local authorities in implementing state religious policies and regulations is how difficult it is to determine how far such religious freedom violations are a result of central government directives and how far they reflect the initiatives of provincial and sub-provincial officials. Forum 18 News Service notes that while the central government sets religious policy, local officials are responsible for implementing it and enjoy wide latitude. Anecdotal accounts suggest that local authorities have perpetrated religious freedom violations to serve the financial and political interests of local officials, who are often judged solely on how successful they are in achieving economic progress.

CHINA: Why can't all Christian bookshops sell Bibles?

The anachronistic official system of publishing, censorship and printing controls fails to meet Chinese Christian publishing needs, Forum 18 News Service has been told. One example of this, amongst others noted by Forum 18, is the severe restrictions on Bible publishing, which right is restricted to the state-controlled Catholic and Protestant religious associations. Despite the considerable achievement of the China Christian Council (CCC) in Bible publishing, continuing rapid church growth has resulted in an ongoing considerable shortage of Bibles and other Christian literature. This is exacerbated by CCC refusal to allow other Chinese publishers to publish Bibles, to the extent of threatening to sue rival publishers, and the astonishing ban on legal Christian bookshops outside the CCC legally selling the Bible. This situation causes both Christian and non-Christian Chinese people to use imaginative ways of bypassing the official system to distribute Christian literature, including Bibles.

RUSSIA: When will Dalai Lama next visit Tuva?

The Dalai Lama's only visit to the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva was in 1992. Since then, none of the "very many attempts" to invite him to the republic has come close to success, a former kamby-lama (head Buddhist of Tuva) told Forum 18 News Service. "Religion shouldn't interfere in politics, but we want to see him," Norbu-Sambuu Mart-Ool noted to Forum 18. The Dalai Lama has several times visited Russia's two other traditionally Buddhist republics of Buryatia and Kalmykia. But the main obstacle to a visit to Tuva - which borders Mongolia – seems to be Russian relations with China, which opposes a visit taking place. Mart-Ool told Forum 18 that the efforts of Kalmykia's president were instrumental in ensuring the Dalai Lama's two-day visit to that republic, following several years of visa denials, but lamented that "our council of ministers is not so active." Tuva's main religious affairs official told Forum 18 that the republic's Buddhist community alone issues invitations to its Tibetan spiritual leader, while adding that the Tuvan government would provide assistance with transport and premises.

CHINA: State attempts to control religious leaderships

Ten years ago, China kidnapped six-year-old Tibetan Buddhist Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family just after his recognition as Panchen Lama (they have not been seen since) and imposed a new puppet Panchen Lama. This is a dramatic example, Forum 18 News Service notes, of continuing Chinese efforts to control religious communities. Also, small numbers of Communist Party sympathisers, who may even be secret Party members, have been placed in the officially-recognised Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Muslim and Daoist leaderships. But these control attempts are increasingly ineffective for reasons such as the reluctance of ethnic minority religious leaderships, such as of the Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, to associate with the state; the continuing strong growth of communities such as unofficial Protestants and Vatican-loyal Catholics; and a generally greater willingness to resist state control. Lower-level leaders have told Forum 18 that the Party might be able to slow and sometimes repress religious zeal, but it can no longer stop it.

CHINA: Xinjiang - Apparent tolerance of religious belief, but with tight state controls

Religious believers in Ghulja (Yining in Chinese), a Xinjiang provincial town with Muslim, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox communities, do not on first glance currently appear to experience difficulties from the Chinese state. Authorised Christian and Muslim places of worship are frequently built at state expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. But the state tries to keep all religious organisations under complete control, and also, so Forum 18 has been told, limits the size of Catholic and Muslim places of worship, as well as restricting the number of mosques. "I have land and the money to build a mosque, but the authorities think it inexpedient to open a religious building in the new housing districts," Abdu Raheman, Muslim owner of Ghulja's largest honey-producing company, complained to Forum 18. Unregistered Chinese and Uighur Protestant communities do exist, but they mainly have to operate in secret. Although Jehovah's Witnesses have been in Ghulja, as far as Forum 18 has been able to establish they have not set up a religious community.

CHINA: Xinjiang - No children in church, Catholics told

While the imams of the ethnic Uighur and Dungan mosques and the only monk at the Buddhist temple in Ghulja (Yining in Chinese), the capital of the Ili-Kazakh autonomous prefecture of China's northwestern Xinjiang region, declined to talk to Forum 18 News Service without permission from the National Religious Committee, the state body that controls religious communities, the Catholic priest was open about restrictions. "We are citizens and taxpayers just as much as the atheists, but in the eyes of the state we are second-class people," Fr Sun Zin Shin complained. He said bosses threaten to sack parishioners who work in state enterprises if they do not stop attending church, while the authorities are particularly vigilant in checking that minors do not attend Catholic churches. He said one schoolboy who managed to get into last December's Christmas service in Nilka despite a police checkpoint to prevent this was subsequently beaten for doing so by his teacher. Nor are services permitted away from the four local registered Catholic parishes. But local ethnic Russian politician Nikolai Lunev defended the restrictions as being enshrined in law.

KYRGYZSTAN: Chinese pressure achieves Falun Gong deregistration

On 25 February, only seven months after it gained registration as a public association, a court in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek revoked the registration of the Falun Gong Centre in the country under pressure from the Chinese embassy, which claimed the spiritual movement "encroaches on human rights and overall poses a threat to society". Judge Jaukhar Baizulayeva, who heard the case, ruled that the group conducts "religious activity that is against public and state interests", though no evidence for this was presented in court. Falun Gong leader's in Kyrgyzstan, Marita Shaikhmetova, complained to Forum 18 News Service that the judge was "prejudiced" against the community before the hearing had even begun and was hostile throughout, shouting at Falun Gong witnesses. The judge declined to talk to Forum 18.