We are lucky to live in country that was founded on the cornerstones of freedom of speech, expression, and religion. We see the signs of religious freedom every day as we walk down the street and pass a church, a mosque, and a synagogue all on one block. However, not all governments see religious diversity as an asset. Here, I will explore three case studies – China, North Korea, and Russia – to illustrate that point.
China creates a stark irony in regard to religion within its borders. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution explicitly allows for citizens to “enjoy freedom of religious belief.” But that is blatantly contrasted by the 150 Tibetan Buddhists who self-immolated between 2009 and today the present. How can the international community rationalize this official government statement when Buddhists would rather set themselves on fire than live under such an oppressive regime? In this case, the Chinese government says it accepts all religious beliefs, but in reality, the state officially recognizes only five religions, leaving out practices of traditional Chinese beliefs and Judaism. Furthermore, with the Chinese Communist Party’s official stance as atheist, people who want to advance in the government are barred from practicing their religious beliefs. Clearly, the Chinese government totes touts the party line “stability above all else” (wending yadao yiqie) and sees religion as a threatening or subversive force.
North Korea is the most authoritative and oppressive government in the world. The regime does not tolerate any religious practices. When the Kim family established its dictatorship dynasty in 1946, Juche ideology replaced religion as the dominant social philosophy. Carved out from Marxist dogma, Juche espouse virtues of self-reliance and independence, which was really a way for the government to control the collective psyche. The Kim regime saw religion as hazardous because it garnered a dangerous amount of loyalty and was too western. However, it is nearly impossible to erase religious echoes from a society (i.e. many North Koreans still have a strong belief in the spiritual afterlife and fortune telling). Even when a government tries to eradicate religion, there are holdovers impossible to erase.
Shifting slightly, Russia provides a unique case study. With the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, the USSR became the first country in modern history to eliminate religion from public discourse. The Russian Orthodox Church and Judaism took the brunt of the new government’s brutal policy. Throughout the Soviet period, Jews could not practice for fear of jail, bodily harm, or death. However, during the 1990s in the wake of the USSR’s dissolution, Judaism was steadily revived. A telling incident with regard to the government’s new stance on the Jewish population occurred in April 2009 when the St. Petersburg Ministry of Internal Affairs University – a law enforcement training academy – removed 1,000 copies of textbooks with anti-Semitic passages.
However, the Russian government has become significantly more oppressive in recent years, including by virtually banning Jehovah’s Witnesses entirely and targeting innocent Muslims. For the first time, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended in its 2017 report that the State Department designate Russia as a “country of particular concern” for exceptionally severe violations of religious freedom, alongside both China and North Korea.
As Jews, we have faced religious persecution throughout history. We have felt the injustices that people today in China, North Korea, and Russia currently face. Instead of being complacent and willing to accept the way of the world, we have an obligation to speak out. It should always be a high priority for us to ensure freedom of religion for all people, no matter where they live.
Halley Posner is a senior at Bates College, located in Lewiston, Maine, pursuing a major in History and a minor in Religious Studies. Last summer, as part of the Machon Kaplan program, she interned at the Center for International Policy, Win Without War. She is from Fairfield, Connecticut.