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Our Neighbours

Religious Intolerance in South Asia

Asian Legal Resource Centre -- ALRC

Sunday, 4th April 2004

For more information, please contact:
In Hong Kong, Sanjeewa Liyanage: + (852) - 2435-8961

Statement on 'Religious intolerance in South Asia' received by Commission on Human Rights

(Geneva, 4 April 2004) -- The written statement of the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) on 'Religious intolerance in South Asia' (E/CN.4/2004/NGO/48) was distributed on the 31 March 2004 at the 60th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. 

The full text of the statement follows.

This year, ALRC submitted 30 written statements to the Commission, on topics as diverse as caste discrimination in Nepal, food scarcity in Myanmar, custodial deaths and torture in India, extrajudicial killings in Thailand, policing in Pakistan, the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, and impunity in Asia.

The complete list of statements, with full texts and links to the original versions, can be viewed on the ALRC website, at http://www.alrc.net/mainfile.php/60written/.

Asian Legal Resource Centre -- ALRC, Hong Kong

Religious intolerance in South Asia

1. The freedom for religious belief and ex-pression is a fundamental human right, protected in both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Most states also guarantee the freedom of religious belief in their constitutions and national laws. However, religious intolerance, discrimination, violence and extremism continue to rise in Asia.

2. Regardless of their international and domestic obligations, Asian governments have implemented laws that legitimize discriminatory policies towards particular religious groups, denying freedom of conversion and forcing them to recant their faith. Particularly disconcerting is the heightened use of state-sanctioned harassment and torture to control and regulate the religious beliefs of individuals. A case in point is the 2002 legislation prohibiting religious conversion in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, where members of the Christian and Muslim communities have experienced harassment from authorities, although freedom of religion is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. This freedom is especially crucial to the Dalit community, which is the group likeliest to seek conversion, as a way out of the discriminatory Hindu caste hierarchy. The new law effectively limits this option. The situation inevitably causes concern about the genuine will of abolishing this old pattern of discrimination, as it is now by law made harder to overcome.

3. The caste system is a source of much discrimination and suffering, as the following cases illustrate:

a. In 2003, in Thinniyam village, in Tiruchi district of Tamil Nadu, a Dalit was forced to eat human excreta and in Dindigul district, another Dalit was forced to drink urine on the allegation that they tried to convert to Christianity. None of the perpetrators were punished and the state government did not take any action in this regard.

b. On 22 September 2003, in Keela Urappanur village, of Thirumangalam block of Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, a Dalit woman aged 38, Muthumari, was forced to drink excreta mixed with water in front of her husband and children by higher caste persons. When the victim tried to lodge a complaint with the local police and the village authorities, her house was stormed by those persons and she was threatened and further assaulted.

c. In Tamil Nadu on 15 August 2003, when the rest of the nation was celebrating the 56th anniversary of independence, K. Rasu, a Dalit by birth and also the Panchayat President of Chottathatti village, Sivaganga District, was humiliated and physically tortured by the rest of the members of the Panchayat for ‘daring’ to unfurl the national flag at the Panchayat’s official function since he was a Dalit.

3. In April 2003 the administration in Gujarat passed its version of the Tamil Nadu Act, the Dharam Swatantrata Vidheya, which the minority groups of Muslims and Christians claim is intended to restrict their religious freedoms and criminalize their activities. In Gujarat following its anti-conversion law, arbitrary questioning of non-Hindus was implemented. The state police carried out a house-to-house questioning of Christian nuns and priests, asking how many people they had converted.

4. In the parliamentary debate in India held on 12 March 2003, regarding the atrocities committed on Dalits, Mr. Ramji Lal Suman, Honourable Member of Parliament admitted that even 55 years after independence, the atrocities towards the lower castes in India is on a rise and should be considered as an issue of national shame and concern. The member also admits that the report of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, though constituted to mitigate the sufferings of Dalits, have never been debated in the parliament. Hon. Member Mr. Muni Lall admitted in the debate that the degree of exploitation and atrocities committed against the Dalits in India are beyond any explanation and that the reason is not merely social but political as well.

5. The situation in Nepal is also not promising. It is the only country that reiterates Hinduism as the national religion vide article 4 of its constitution. Caste based discrimination is on an ever increasing rise in Nepal, and the Asian Legal Resource Centre has made a separate submission regarding Dalit women in India and Nepal to the Commission.

6. Article 9 of the Sri Lankan Constitution grants special status to Buddhism, stating that "it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights guaranteed by Article 10 and 14 (1) (e)". Article 10 states "Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." Article 14 (1) (e) guarantees the freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either in public or in private, alone or in association with others. Not withstanding this assurance, the attacks on churches have increased this year while the police have stood idly by, as shown in the attacks reported by Christian Solidarity Worldwide:

a.2-3 August 2003 - Methodist Church in Rathgama, 2 believers beaten; Assembly of God Church (A.O.G.) in Thanamalwila, pastor attacked; A.O.G. Church in Lunugamvehera, Pastor Ranjith and his sister beaten; A.O.G. Church in Ganemulla, believers' houses attacked; Calvary Church in Hiddaduwa, church attacked.

b.13 June 2003 - House church of Pastor Sylvester Rozairo attacked at midnight, Brother Anton beaten, furniture, clothes and Christian literature burned.

c. 3 June 2003 - St Stephen's Lutheran Church at Orutota, Gampaha, destroyed.

d. 27 March 2003 - Apostolic Church of Padhaviya Siripura, church burned down about six weeks after public protest rally (16th February) against the existence of the church.

7. No convictions have yet been made in relation to these events. The Asian Legal Resource Center is deeply concerned that further attacks will be encouraged by the apparent impunity with which the perpetrators are allowed to operate.

8. In Pakistan religious intolerance continues despite of international and domestic pressure. Shamim Kausor, of the district of Toba Tek Singh in Punjab province, was abducted at gunpoint from her home on 31 December 2003, by fundamentalist Muslim men. She was forced to marry a Muslim man and was told that it would bring ‘grace’ to her life to bear a Muslim child. Kausor's father, Afzal Masih tried to initiate legal proceedings against the accused but was strongly dissuaded by Muslim village leaders and the local police.

9. The Blasphemy Law contributes to legitimizing religious intolerance in Pakistan. On 28 November 2003, Mr. Anwar Masih was arrested by the Shadhra police under section 295 (b) & (c) of the Pakistan Penal Code, which incorporates Blasphemy laws. The complainant, Mr. Naseer Ahmed, who had personal enmity with the family of Anwar Masih, lodged a complaint with Mr. Zulfiqar Ahmed, Sub Inspector, Shadhra Town Police station, stating that Mr. Anwar Masih had defamed the name of Prophet Mohamed.

10. The Government of Bangladesh on 8 January 2004 banned all publications of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Bangladesh, which represents the country's 1,50,000 strong Muslim minority sect, bowing to pressure from Islamic fundamentalists. The government also decided to withdraw cases against 12,000 anti-Ahmadiyya activists, charged with assaulting policemen while attacking an Ahmadiyya mosque in Dhaka on December 5.

11. The ban by Bangladesh's Home Ministry was imposed a day before the end of an ultimatum to ex-communicate the sect by religious bigots. Contrary to the move in December 2003, the State Minister for Religious Affairs said only God had the right to declare anyone a non-Muslim. The government has banned the sale, publication, distribution and retention of all books and booklets on Islam published by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Bangladesh, which includes the Bengali or any other translation (with explanation) of the Quran. The ban has been imposed in alleged view of objectionable materials in such (Ahmadiyya) publications, which hurt or may hurt the sentiments of the majority Muslim population of Bangladesh.

12. The Vested Property Act is considered to be another symbol of institutional discrimination upon the minority community in Bangladesh. Thousands of people belonging to the minority Hindu community as well as indigenous people have been dispossessed of their property by the brutal implementation of this law. Immediately after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India, the Bangladesh government along the same lines ordered identification of "Enemy Property" in Bangladesh in tune with the Vested Property Act. This also resembles the Enemy Property Continuance of Emergency Provisions (Repeal) Act 1974 of Pakistan.

13. As far as Indonesia is concerned, the violence that took place in September with attacks on three Christian villages -- Saatu, Pantangolemba and Pinedapa -- in Poso and Central Sulawesi resulting in the deaths of nine persons, indicates the failure of the government to provide necessary protection.  

14. Overall, it seems that states are not doing enough to prevent violence from occurring, or protecting religious minorities during periods of violence, bringing justice to victims, arresting perpetrators, providing proper compensation and taking preventive measures for the cycle of religious violence to be extinguished. Towards this goal, the Asian Legal Resource Center wishes to see the international community, especially through the good offices of the Commission, to 

a. Pressure Asian governments, especially the Indian and Sri Lankan governments to withdraw all domestic legislations that counteract the inalienable right of freedom of religion.

b. Pressure the Indian government to declare that any legislation fastening criminal liability for peaceful religious activity is against the basic principles of the Indian constitution.

c. Pressure the Sri Lankan Government to take the earliest appropriate action for impartial and just investigations so that the perpetrators of religious intolerance are punished.

d. Pressure the Government of Bangladesh to reconsider its laws that provide legitimacy for religious intolerance.

e. Pressure all states in Asia to adopt and enforce legislation according to international law designed to protect religious freedom. Particular attention must be given to revise and eliminate vague and ambiguous content in laws, and repeal laws that permit only state approved religious groups, anti-conversion laws, and those that negatively discriminate against minority religious groups, including unequal voting policies and religious identity cards. The strongest regulations should be reserved for circumstances where torture is used to force conversion.

f. Instruct all states in Asia to ensure that they adequately protect religious minorities, particularly through preemptive securing of places of worship and other areas of potential violence, especially during religious festivals, holidays and elections.

g. Recommend that each state establish an independent working group or equivalent agency empowered to effectively monitor religious intolerance domestically and report back to the Commission and its Special Rapporteurs.

 h. Assist all states in Asia in educating their societies on the benefits of religious diversity, and encourage the fostering of dialogue between religious groups.

i. Support the education of police, lawyers and judges in Asia on how to properly protect the rights of religious groups, and encourage the laying down of ways to hold unresponsive police and government officials accountable. The latter would include the imposition of heavy fines, removal from office and other severe sanctions against state servants found to have practiced religious intolerance.

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