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Not the last word

/ 11:05 PM August 06, 2012

Half a world and almost six centuries separate the two men: Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai in 2012 and Lord Chancellor of England Thomas More in 1535. Yet, they resemble each other in what matters.

Both rose through dedicated service. More served as King Henry VIII’s most trusted counselor. Daqin towered in the Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA), communist China’s agency to leash Catholics.

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More refused assent to Henry VIII’s divorce from the barren Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. For spurning the First Succession Act, which “anointed” Henry VIII as the Church of England’s head, More was imprisoned.

“To defy the king means death,” a messenger warned. “Is that all, my Lord?” More replied. “All that means is I will die today and you will die tomorrow.” His last words on the scaffold in 1535 were: “I die the King’s good servant—but God’s first.”

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At St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai, Daqin said after his ordination as bishop: “Once you assume your pastoral job, your body and heart should be completely focused on pastoral things.” He quit the PCA.

“The congregation broke out in loud applause,” Washington Post reported. “Beijing’s attitude toward all faiths has been hardening, particularly as the once-in-a-decade transition of the ruling Politburo approaches. The bishop disappeared. Caesar demanded for itself what should be rendered to God.

Fast forward to “International Religious Freedom Report 2011,” just released by the US State Department. Today,  more than a billion live under governments that systematically repress liberty to worship. “New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools.”

They include the use of anti-blasphemy laws or terrorism as excuse to curb religious groups.

There was marked deterioration in China where only five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” may legally hold worship services in state-approved sites: Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant. But Catholics professing loyalty to the Vatican are not permitted to register. Shut out too are Baptists, etc. Catechizing or preaching in “unregistered” places of worship is proscribed. Spiritual groups, like Falun Gong, are outlawed. Crackdowns on Christian house churches, such as the Shouwang church in Beijing, continue. Communist Party members must be atheists.

Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region encounter severe interference. Similarly suppressed was the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Intrusion into Buddhist monasteries and nunneries sparked at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans.

“Religious freedom does not exist in any form” in North Korea. Pyongyang has four state-controlled churches. One is designated Catholic. The government-established Korean Catholic Association supposedly serves the Changchun church. “It has no ties with the Vatican. Nor are there Catholic priests residing in the country. Missionaries are arrested. Scarcity of information makes it difficult to confirm reports on imprisonment of believers.”

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In contrast, religious freedom is “generally respected in law and practice” by Buddhist Thailand, Catholic Philippines, Confucian Singapore and Muslim Indonesia. But Jakarta recently detained and imprisoned individuals under its blasphemy law.

Burma released Buddhist monks arrested in the 2007 Saffron Revolt. But others continue to serve long prison sentences. The government refused to recognize the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority as citizens and imposed restrictions on movement and marriage.

Christians face challenges in Vietnam. The government holds religious prisoners. Hundreds of churches await registration by local authorities in the northwest highlands. Hanoi has not allowed the publication of the Bible in the modern H’mong language, despite pledging to do so.

Governments increasingly use blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion laws to suppress liberties. In Pakistan, individuals calling for reform of blasphemy laws continue to be killed. A Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, is awaiting an appeal of her 2010 death sentence for blasphemy. The verdict touched off a debate within the country.

Russia generally respects religious freedom. But violent extremism in the North Caucasus region led to the use of the “Law on Combating Extremist Activity” to justify raids on religious organizations, detain and restrict the freedom to worship of minority group members. This pattern is reflected in Bahrain, Iraq and Nigeria. “Authorities often failed to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities.”

Specially affected are minorities, caught in the swirl of political and demographic transitions. Egypt took greater measure for greater inclusiveness. But it faltered to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians. The Libyan Supreme Court overturned a law that criminalized insults against Islam. But Gadhafi-era laws remained in the books.

Countries in Europe are becoming more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse. These demographic changes are sometimes accompanied by growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered “the other.” Belgium and France have laws restricting dresses which adversely affect Muslims and others. In Zamboanga City, the Muslim community is upset by a Pilar College policy that bans wearing of the hijab, Inquirer’s Noralyn Mustafa reports.

Despite abuses of religious freedom, “change is possible,” the report asserts. Countries whose constitution, laws and practices protect religious freedom and human rights (are) the  most vibrant and stable. “Intolerance does not have the last word,” the US report says.

(Email: [email protected])

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TAGS: “International Religious Freedom Report 2011, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, Juan L. Mercado, religious freedom, Thomas More
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