Unblocking The Message

Gathered in Manila for the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace, 350 leaders of the world’s major faiths tried to turn spears in Mindanao into plowshares. The human cost of conflict there is stiff. In just one day, 213 families traumatized by fighting poured into the town of Datu Piang, the International Red Cross reported. Built on marsh land, that burg already houses 24,000 evacuees. “People even shelter under stilts supporting buildings,” the Red Cross noted.

This uprooting hasn’t ceased since “rogue” commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ran amuck. Murder, arson and use of human shields were their protest against the Supreme Court’s restraint on the Memorandum of Agreement on ancestral domain.

“Un-Islamic,” said other Muslims.

Man has the right to choose one’s faith without fear of government intervention or harm, says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Do ASEAN countries measure up to this yardstick?

Leaf through the US State Department’s publication, “International Religious Freedom Report 2008.” It documents how countries vary.

Majority of Filipinos are Christians. Nine out of every 10 Thais are Buddhists. Most Indonesians and Malaysians are Muslims. Their constitutions, like that of Singapore and Vietnam, provide for freedom of worship.

The new Thai constitution retains the provision that the king should be Buddhist. Indonesia bans “deviant sects” like Ahmadiyya. Malaysia designates Islam as the “religion of the Federation.” It bars propagation of other faiths.

Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok and Singapore allow free worship, the report says. Not Burma, where government agents infiltrate “virtually all organizations.” The junta brutally suppressed the September 2007 Saffron Revolution: peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. Muslims are harassed.

And Laos pressures Protestants to renounce their faith on threat of arrest, eviction or “reeducation.”

Vietnam’s new laws, in contrast, ease curbs on religious freedom. Muslims go on the hajj. Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter. The number of monks, pastors and priests is increasing. Hanoi dialogues with the Vatican.

There are no forced conversions in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand.

Adherence to Buddhism is key for promotion to senior posts in Burma. Vietnamese converts shy away from applying for new IDs. These state their religion.

“Conversions from Christianity to Islam is most typical among overseas Filipinos who worked in Islamic countries,” the report notes. “Conversion brings social and economic benefits while abroad.” Many “converts of convenience remain Muslim upon return.” They are known as “Balik-Islam.”

Malaysia brands converts as “apostates.” They’re hustled to “rehabilitation” centers for coerced religious instruction. The government bans Malay-language Christian materials in peninsular Malaysia. The Hindu community protests demolition of their temples.

Indonesia’s central government has not overturned local laws that discriminate against minorities or women’s rights. In civil registration of marriages and births or the issuance of identity cards, minorities get the short stick.

In southern Thailand, violence perpetrated by ethnic Malay Muslim Thais against ethnic Thai Buddhists sparked retaliatory killings. This overlaid political disputes with “religious and separatist overtones.” Buddhist monks sweat when walking with begging bowls through the region.

In the southern Philippines, historical disputes over ancestral domain, discrimination against Muslims, migration, kidnapping for ransom and murder by bandits, like the Abu Sayyaf, exacerbate tensions. “Mainstream Muslim leaders reject the Abu Sayyaf’s claim of religious affiliation. Many Muslims viewed Christian proselytizing as a form of … depriving Muslims of homeland and cultural identity.”

“The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) … worked through the UN system to weaken religious freedom protections,” the US Department of State report asserts. The bloc “does not recognize the right of individuals to freely change their religion.”

The OIC introduced in 1999 the concept of “defamation of Islam.” Objections led the OIC to broaden the measure to encompass respect for all religions. “But Islam remains the only specifically mentioned faith... Introduction of the defamation concept, in effect, seeks to export the blasphemy laws, found in many OIC countries, to the international level.”

This concept “attempts to limit freedom of religion,” the report states. “It restricts rights of individuals to disagree with or criticize religion, in particular Islam.”

Some use this concept to curb criticism of political structures, and restrict religious speech. Instead, this weakens religious freedom protections, including minority Muslim populations, as in China.

How does that square with “A Common Word between Us and You,” a letter that 138 Muslim scholars wrote last year? This followed up their 2006 open letter to Pope Benedict XVI. Despite differences, they said, the two “Greatest Commandments” are an area of common ground and a link between the Koran, the Torah and the New Testament. “To those who relish conflict, we say: our very eternal souls are all at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace,” they said. “Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works.”

Extremists threatened King Abudallah bin Ad Al Aziz for sponsoring the interfaith conference that produced “A Common Word.” Christian and Muslim scholars, meeting in Yale, wrote: “Dialogue is not a departure from faith. It is an essential tool in the quest for the common good.”

Is this message getting through?

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