Many people still suffer religious persecution, according to the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, released on 19 September by the US State Department.
The report, which covers the 12-month period up to 30 June 2008, comes as the lack of religious freedom in some countries has received widespread attention. China is one country in the news and according to the Department of State the government's repression of religious freedom has intensified in some regions, including in Tibet and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The report also noted that unregistered Protestant religious groups in Beijing experienced intensified harassment from government authorities in the lead up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
'Underground' Catholic clergy also faced repression, in large part due to their avowed loyalty to the Vatican. As well, authorities in Shanghai implemented measures to prevent Catholic pilgrims from visiting the Marian Shrine of Sheshan during May.
Although there continue to be conflicts between the Chinese government and the Vatican, particularly over the nomination of bishops, the report commented that the distinction between the Catholic Patriotic Association and the unregistered Catholic Church has become less clear over time. In some official Catholic churches, clerics led prayers for the Pope, and pictures of the Pope were displayed, the report noted.
India is another country where religious persecution has been in the headlines in recent weeks and the Department of State's report contains ample information on the situation.
Some Indian state governments enacted and amended 'anti- conversion' laws. In addition, police and often enforcement agencies did not act swiftly or effectively to counter communal attacks, including those against religious minorities.
The report did affirm that the vast majority of persons from the religious groups in India live in peaceful coexistence. At the same time it acknowledged the existence of episodes of serious conflict.
While the legal system generally provides remedy for violations of religious freedom, it was not enforced rigorously or effectively in many cases pertaining to religiously oriented violence.
Hindu extremists attacked Christian villagers and churches in the Kandhamal district over the last Christmas holidays. Approximately 100 churches and Christian institutions were damaged, 700 Christian homes were destroyed causing villagers to flee to nearby forests, and 22 Christian-owned businesses were affected.
The report commented that local authorities arrested numerous Christians under state-level 'anti- conversion' laws for allegedly engaging in conversions by force, allurement or fraud
Hindu nationalist organisations frequently alleged that Christian missionaries lured low-caste Hindus with offers of free education and health care, equating such actions with forced conversions.
Christians responded, according to the report, by saying that low- caste Hindus converted of their own free will and that efforts by Hindu groups to 'reconvert' these new Christians to Hinduism were themselves accompanied by offers of remuneration, and thus fraudulent.
Recent press reports have highlighted problems in Vietnam where there is still a lack of religious freedom. However, according to the report by the State Department, respect for religious freedom and practice continued to improve during the past year.
The Catholic Church, various Protestant congregations, and other smaller religious groups, reported that their ability to gather and worship improved, according to the State Department. The Catholic Church also reported that the government approved the establishment of one additional Catholic seminary.
The report cited estimates suggesting that more than half of the population is at least nominally Buddhist. The Catholic Church accounts for 8%-10% of the population with an estimated 8 million Catholics in the country, according to the State Department.
However, recently numerous reports of conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Vietnamese government over properties confiscated by authorities prompted an intervention by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
A press release on 24 September said that the Commission 'respectfully differs with the US State Department's decision to remove Vietnam from its list of 'Countries of Particular Concern' in 2006.'
'Vietnam continues to demonstrate a disturbing disregard for fundamental human rights, with police violence against protesters at peaceful vigils at properties formerly owned by the Catholic Church of Vietnam, [and] drawn-out imprisonment and house arrest of numerous religious freedom advocates,' the press release noted.
It went on to describe how peaceful vigils organised by Catholics to protest the confiscation of Church properties have resulted in the arrest of a number of protesters and the use of physical force by police.
'The Commission calls for Vietnam to be re-designated as one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom for its continuing systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom and other human rights,' the statement concluded.
As Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India commented recently, 'Religious liberty is the first of liberties.' These recent episodes of religious persecution provide a graphic reminder of the need to keep pressure on governments to guarantee freedom of religion.
Zenit News Agency