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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

RUSSIA: One religious policy fits all?

In both Sakhalin and Khabarovsk regions, Forum 18 News Service has observed that the local authorities attempt to translate the publicly expressed religious preferences of Russia's national leadership into concrete policy. Symbolic support for Russia's so-called traditional confessions - Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism - thus becomes material, even when these faiths have little or no traditional following in much of Far East Siberia. Local public opinion appears to be divided on the desirability of such an approach. Some believe state support for the Orthodox Church to be an essential part of the preservation of Russian national culture. One local Pentecostal, however, asked Forum 18: "Can you imagine - I, an evangelical Christian, or even an atheist, is working and paying taxes to build a new Orthodox church which is going to fight us?"

LAOS: The Disturbing Prospect for Religious Freedom

The religious freedom picture in Laos is complex, not least due to non-religious factors such as ethnicity, and the state's opposition to freedom of information. However, it does appear that religious freedom conditions have improved in the last few years. But the central government's political agenda remains fundamentally hostile to religious freedom, despite government claims that religious freedom violations are caused by an alleged inability to control local officials. This hostility as manifested in "isolated" incidents of religious freedom violations – against Protestants, Buddhists, Animists, Baha'is, Muslims and Catholics - seems set to continue.

CHINA: Religious Freedom and the Legal System: Continuing Struggle

The Communist party-state remains determined to maintain control over society, using over the past 20 years an increasing number of laws and regulations as a means to this end. In the field of religion, Ye Xiaowen, Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, has publicly stated that "The purpose . . of strengthening the administration of religious affairs according to law is actively to guide the religions to adapt themselves to socialist society." There is a complex web of laws and regulations on religion under which, to take one example, children may not receive religious education, whatever their parents think. The state claims the exclusive right to decide on what are "normal" religious activities and is effectively pursuing a policy of divide-and-rule towards religious communities. Some religious communities de facto accepted this policy, not forseeing that the state's repression of Falun Gong would also lead to measures against, for example, the unofficial Protestant community. The Chinese state's relationship with religion can only improve if the state accepts that laws are supreme – even over the party - and protect individuals and society from arbitrary actions by those in power.

CHINA: For religious freedom, patience may be the virtue

As China's National People's Congress passed constitutional amendments addressing the issue of human rights, outside the congress doors the secret police was crushing possible dissent. Religious believers, including a Catholic bishop and a Protestant house church leader, were among those detained. Two other Protestants who researched the 2003 crackdown on unofficial churches in Hanzhou had just been indicted, while hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, thousands of Protestants and many Vatican-loyal Catholics and other believers languish in prisons and labour camps. Communist ideological opposition to religion remains strong, despite attempts to couch it in milder terms, combined with fears – rooted in Chinese history – of foreign religious involvement. The Party also fears rival organisations with the power to mobilise adherents. Few believers expect anything more than incremental improvements.

NORTH KOREA: Mystery of the last "Hermit Kingdom"

Although some things are known about North Korea's control over all aspects of its citizens' lives and about its chemical and biological experiments on prisoners, less is known about the country's religious life. Although religious freedom does not exist, there is dispute about how genuine religious practice is at the handful of "show churches" in the capital Pyongyang. Dusty pews suggest that they are not well used. Buddhist temples are mere cultural relics. Parents are reportedly afraid to pass on their faith to their children, as sporadic refugee accounts suggest believers are still punished for practising their faith in secret. It is often as refugees in China that North Koreans first encounter religious life. Refugees repatriated from China have reported that they are interrogated about their contacts with mainly Protestant South Korean missionaries, while the North Koreans have reportedly set up a fake Protestant church in China to lure back defectors. Evidence suggests that any religious revival in North Korea is a recent phenomenon resulting from repatriates sharing their faith. This might prove a challenge to the regime.

CHINA: When will Beijing's Orthodox have church?

After today's funeral of Beijing's last Orthodox priest, it is still unknown when the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church will have a church in the capital. Visiting Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev told Forum 18 News Service that Orthodox believers "have no priest now, no church and nowhere to pray", although he said the authorities were positive about the idea of Chinese Orthodox studying for the priesthood in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has being trying to help the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church, which the Cultural Revolution decimated, without success asking to send priests to surviving Chinese parishes, Forum 18 has been told. Several parishes still survive in Inner Mongolia and in Xinjiang Province in north west China. The only surviving Chinese local clergy are in the southern city of Shanghai, where St Nicholas' church has been turned into a French restaurant. Elsewhere, Chinese Orthodox churches are also being used for other purposes, in at least one case as a night club.

MONGOLIA: Religious freedom survey, December 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Mongolia, Forum 18 News Service notes the, in regional terms, unusually high degree of religious freedom. Possibly key to this is the fact that Mongolia has only one paid official dealing solely with religious issues, instead of an extensive state bureaucracy. However, Protestants told Forum 18 of incidents in which unregistered churches were threatened or fined , as well as a widespread tendency by state authorities to demand random "fines" or "donations", but this appears to be the action of individual local council members. There is rising social concern about the activity of Christians in the country, particularly due to a belief that they advocate suicide. However, Forum 18 found that there appears to be in general less fear of new religious influences in Mongolia than is found in surrounding countries.

MONGOLIA: Religious freedom oasis? (Part 2 of 2)

Although Protestants did not exist in Mongolia before 1990, they then seem to have experienced a boom due to the country's relatively large degree of religious freedom, Forum 18 News Service has found. However, the president of the Mongolian Evangelical Alliance told Forum 18 that "it is impossible to build in Ulaanbaatar, even if a church is registered," and state registration appears to be a particular problem for indigenous Mongolian churches. Churches seeking registration may be the target of demands for bribes from local officials, or denied registration on non-legal grounds. They may also reportedly be fined – apparently for not having state registration, even though it is not compulsory under the 1993 religion law. Demands for money may also be made by local officials, even after registration has taken place. The US Embassy complains if US-led churches receive such requests, Forum 18 has been told.

MONGOLIA: Religious freedom oasis? (Part 1 of 2)

Forum 18 News Service has found a remarkable degree of agreement amongst state officials, cultural figures, Christians and Buddhists in Mongolia with the sentiments of a Mongolian member of parliament, who told Forum 18 that "Chinghis Khan invited Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Daoists here back in the thirteenth century. Mongolians are very tolerant in the religious sphere – I've never come across anything like it anywhere else." This embraces freedom to witness and state registration of churches, which are difficult issues in surrounding countries. A Russian Buddhist source commented to Forum 18 that the Buddhist reaction to someone becoming a Christian would be "It is their karma – let them." However, some Protestants (see subsequent F18News article), have raised very serious concerns.

MONGOLIA: Authorities don't follow neighbours' exclusion of religious leaders

Even though Mongolia's influential neighbours China and Russia have not recently hosted Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso XIV or Pope John Paul II, Forum 18 News Service has found that in Mongolia they are welcome guests. This appears to be because Mongolia regards the Dalai Lama as a solely religious figure, and the Pope as primarily a head of state. Discussing the exiled Tibetan religious leader's latest visit with Forum 18, Mongolian military colonel E. Batmunkh pointed out that "we are a state with equal rights now. We don't look to the Chinese - if the Dalai Lama is invited to Mongolia, he comes." Fr Anatoli Fesechko of Ulaanbaatar's Russian Orthodox church, talking to Forum 18 about a possible papal visit, said that the Moscow Patriarchate did not consider Mongolia to be a part of its canonical territory, "so there can't be interconfessional conflict between us."

MONGOLIA: Authorities thwart the return of Buddhist King

Before 1921, Mongolians recognised a living Buddha as ruler, so the discovery of a legitimate successor to the last ruler has not been viewed with enthusiasm by the present-day government, Forum 18 News Service has found. An anonymous Buddhist source told Forum 18 that the government does not permit Jetsun Dhampa IX to visit Mongolia as "They are scared that he will lay claim to power here." Jetsun Dhampa has, however, maintained that he has "no interest in politics." Widely different views were expressed in Mongolia to Forum 18 of what position he should hold. In 1999 Jetsun Dhampa visited Mongolia unofficially as a tourist, meeting with an enthusiastic popular reception and recognition by some as the religious leader of Mongolia, which embarrassed the government. An official visit seems unlikely in the near future.

CHINA: Xinjiang religious freedom survey, September 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of north-western China (previously known as Eastern Turkestan), Forum 18 News Service reports on the pervasive state control over the religious life of native Muslims, who make up about half the local population. Mosques are strictly controlled by the authorities and all the imam-hatybs are state-appointed. Posters on mosques declare that children under 18 cannot attend, while an unofficial order bans employees of state-run companies from attending under threat of dismissal. Only approved religious literature can be sold. Despite Xinjiang's impressive recent economic growth, Forum 18 found that tension between local Muslims and the Chinese government has not been relieved.