Religious freedom walks hand in hand with freedom of speech

Monday, May 28, 2012
The China Post news staff

Over the last 30 years, Taiwan has embraced democracy while upholding religious pluralism and tolerance toward all beliefs, including Islam, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

Local authorities not only respect religious freedoms under the Republic of China's (R.O.C.) Constitution, but also as a matter of practice. Earlier this month, for instance, thousands of believers attended a celebration of the Buddha's Birthday held in front of the Presidential Office (總統府) and the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (國立中正紀念堂).

The two separate events, which marked the birthday of Prince Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism and the Supreme Buddha in most Buddhist traditions, were organized by various religious organizations, including the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation (慈濟基金會), Fo Guang Shan Monastery (佛光山寺) and the Buddha's Light International Association (國際佛光會). Since 1999, the date has been a national holiday in Taiwan that falls on the second Sunday in May and coincides with Mother's Day.

Like most developed countries, Taiwan has come to accept religious freedom as a basic human right, based on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Though not a member state of the United Nations, the R.O.C. is a country that allows its residents to freely practice religion without needing to worry about religious oppression. There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, beliefs or practices in Taiwan in 2011.

And you shouldn't be surprised if you catch sight of foreign Buddhist masters, nuns, monks or Imams. Many local and foreign religious groups contribute generously to Taiwan's society; their wonderful work is also recognized and praised by the government, which awards them for outstanding work in the promotion of social well-being.

Although the Vatican and mainland China have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1951, when the Holy See's recognition of the R.O.C. sparked anger on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, giving out increasing amounts of religious freedom could allow the public to express their dissatisfaction peacefully — and openly — rather than by force.

Chinese authorities could also learn from Taiwan's religious freedom in its bid to improve ties with the Vatican. So far, the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association does not acknowledge the authority of Pope Benedict XVI and is fiercely opposed to the “clandestine” clergy loyal to the pontiff.

According to Article 36 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China (PRC), “Citizens of the (PRC) enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.” Still, religious freedom in mainland China is far from being a reality. Religious workers of denominations that Beijing does not recognize are harassed by the government, such as followers of the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong (法輪功).

With the gradual warming of cross-strait relations since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in 2008, the soaring exchanges between Taiwan's religious leaders and mainland Chinese officials offer opportunities for change.

The friendly relations between mainland China and Master Hsing Yun (星雲法師), founder of Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Kaohsiung (高雄市), have helped to share experiences on Taiwan's religious freedom. China has also agreed to allow Taiwan's Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation to set up a mission on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan not only talks the talk, but walks the walk when it comes to religious freedom. The freedom to worship that we enjoy all across the island has successfully translated into freedom of speech and religious expression for all residents, such as local police officers, foreign students and priests and even Buddhist masters.

At the same time, exchanges and warm relations with highly revered religious leaders and respected religious groups can translate into relaxed religious restrictions in mainland China in the short-, medium- and long-term.

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