A Fork in the Road: What lies ahead for religious minorities in Sri Lanka, India and South Asia?

Sri Lanka and India are facing pivotal moments, both for their future, and the future of South Asia as a whole. Both countries’ drives towards religious hegemony have left little place for Christians and Muslims, a factor which will certainly lead to more instability and intolerance in the region.

Sri Lanka: Buddhist nationalists vindicated

Sri Lanka was the site of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in which over 250 people were killed when terrorists targeted a number of churches and hotels across the country. In the aftermath of the bombings, there were reports of violent attacks against Muslims and an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice. Some reprisals against the Muslim population have been carried out by Christians, in contrast to the previous relative harmony between the two communities as they both battled intolerance from sections of the Sinhalese Buddhist population.

Furthermore, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who have been portraying Islam as a threat to both Buddhism and Sri Lanka for years, consider their stance vindicated by the bombings.

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Long read: The forgotten faces and hidden history of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

The criminalisation of blasphemy has become synonymous with Pakistan.

No case highlights the fervour and frustration associated with blasphemy more than that of Asia Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi), the Pakistani Christian woman who was falsely accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010.

Throughout Bibi’s protracted legal case, the worst instincts of certain sections of Pakistani society were brought to the fore and played out in national and international media as Islamist groups staged violent demonstrations calling for her execution on multiple occasions, even after her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2018. Following a nine-year ordeal, Asia Bibi and her family were eventually taken to Canada to start a new life, but for many other victims their fate is less hopeful, and they are left languishing under long jail sentences, prolonged when cases are adjourned without  hearing.

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Quick read: Hong Kong protests – an interview with a Chinese pastor

In recent weeks Hong Kong has seen unprecedented protests in which over one million demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest a controversial extradition bill that would allow the extradition of suspected criminals to Mainland China. On 9 July the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, declared that the bill was ‘dead,’ however some protesters remain concerned that the bill is still on the official agenda and has not been formally withdrawn.

Near the beginning of the protests CSW spoke with a Chinese pastor who explained the main concerns regarding the bill, and what the bill may indicate about the general direction for freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong.

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China: Lili’s Story

Religious groups in China are currently experiencing what has been referred to as the most severe crackdown on freedom of religion or belief since the Cultural Revolution. This is a composite account constructed from real stories of Christians in China. Similar things have happened, but we have changed the details.

“Today it finally happened. As soon as I entered the lecture hall and sat down, I could feel the professor’s eyes on me. After class started she didn’t give me a second glance, but even so, when she called my name and told me to stay behind afterwards, I wasn’t surprised. I guess I’ve been expecting this for a while.

“I need to talk to you about your Bible study group”, she said.

Actually, it’s more like a discussion group. We read a passage from the Bible, and then we talk about its meaning and what we think it means for our own lives. Sometimes we talk about social issues as well, it just comes naturally. But there would be no point explaining all this to my professor. It would only make things worse.

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The promise of an inclusive India?

As Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) starts its second innings in government after one of the most bitter, vicious and polarising election campaigns India has witnessed, he has been speaking of an aspirational and inclusive India.

The BJP-led coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) secured 350 seats of the 542 seats in the Lok Shaba (parliamentary) elections, with their majority growing from 25% in 2009 to 45% in 2019. Given the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda, this success gives rise to concerns that BJP-controlled areas may be subject to increased FoRB violations.

With exceptions in the south, for example in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry, the BJP made fresh progress in West Bengal and Odhisa, and continued to tighten its grip on existing stronghold states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.  Despite the Southern states remaining largely free from the BJP, FoRB monitoring in the South will need to be stepped up, particularly with the party’s win in West Bengal and Odhisa, states that have recorded a rise in FoRB violations.  

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