Taiwan Religious Freedom

Taiwan: a Beacon for Religious and Political Freedom against the Darkness

Rick Plasterer on August 6, 2021

A recent article focused on presentations at the Religious Freedom Institute’s Religious Freedom Summit July 13-15 regarding the worsening situation for religious freedom in communist China. Also at the summit the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan presented a panel discussion regarding Taiwan’s contribution to religious freedom in the contemporary world.

This event was held on July 15, the 34th anniversary of the end of martial law in Taiwan, which occurred on July 15, 1987. Since then, Taiwan “has been steadfast in pursuing justice and religious freedom,” the panel moderator Sen-Hong Yang, President of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights said. While China is a land of persecution, Taiwan is an island of “rescuing.” It is “a sheep in the midst of wolves.” He asked “how can Taiwan be ‘wise as serpent, and harmless as dove?’” Although under grave threat from China, and unable to have normal diplomatic and military relations with most of the world, Taiwan stands as a beacon for religious freedom, and freedom in general.

Yang first introduced Ren Ruiting, who was a member of a house church in China. Ruiting said that her family was persecuted because they were members of Early Rain Covenant Church. She recounted how the police guarded her family’s house at all times, and they had to apply for permission to go out. She said that “at night there were nearly twenty officers guarding the entrance to my home.” The police could demand that they go to the police station at any time to be questioned. They were made to agree to participate in “the government’s correction work.” Because of the difficult situation, and especially because of her adopted baby brother, the “family decided to leave China in early 2019.” She was told by authorities that she was not “allowed to go abroad.” They escaped to Taiwan under the guise of a medical examination. Taiwan had no law to accept her family as Taiwanese citizens. But the government issued three month visas, and renewed them when they expired, as the family was sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. Many more refugees can be expected in the future, she said, and most cannot expect church support.

Bob Fu, President of China Aid, which supports persecuted Christians in China, said that he testified before the Taiwanese parliament, but in a sense, he believes he was testifying “directly to Beijing.” Communist authorities maintain that criticism of the injustices and cruelties under their rule is interference in their internal affairs. But speaking to the Taiwanese parliament in Chinese, rather than English, which he uses when speaking in other parts of the world, Fu said that from the communists’ own standpoint (which he doesn’t endorse), his speech was a legitimate internal matter. Certainly it can be believed that the leaders in Beijing heard what he was saying, even if they said nothing, just as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s audience in communist Russia was silent. Fu said that his message is that if China tortures its own people, it does “not deserve the respect of the international community.” Nor will China deserve the respect of “the citizens of the Republic of China” (presumably, Taiwan, which officially retains this name). He urged Taiwan not to be intimidated by the communist government on the mainland. He asked how long the world can continue to save the face of the Chinese government when it is “committing genocide.” How can China be allowed to host the 2022 Olympics when it has such evil internal policies? He hopes that Taiwan will continue to be a “Noah’s ark” for refugees from China. “When they oppress, we give freedom,” Fu said.

Yang added that in broadcasting to China via Radio Taiwan International, he always says “if you [i.e., the communist government] want to talk to Taiwan, treat your people well.” He then introduced American judge and legal scholar Ken Starr, who asked how we can stop China from its crimes. Starr said that Taiwan is a “beautiful island that stands for freedom.” He said that Taiwan is “a leading voice for the entire globe.” He observed that the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan led the country to freedom from martial law. The democratization of Taiwan was “in no small measure due to the moral leadership of the church … ushering in, in astonishing short order, parliamentary democracy, all the freedoms of an open, a democratic society … [it was] the church lifting up the voice of freedom.” The church in that day wanted more than “freedom of worship and free exercise of religion;” it wanted democracy and freedom for society in general. In another advance, the Taiwanese parliament is now considering “a refugee law to provide legal order to the process” of receiving refugees. Starr also mentioned the global conference on international religious freedom held in Taiwan in 2019 that considered the organ harvesting practiced in China, especially against Falun Gong adherents and Uyghur Muslims. He said that people must “be tireless, relentless, in a peaceful way” to advance this issue with governments and legislators.

Hsiao Bi-Khim, Taiwan’s Representative to the United States, who spoke next on the panel, said that the Presbyterian Church played an important role for freedom and democracy in “the dark days” before the lifting of martial law. She said that “freedom doesn’t come about easily, it’s always the outcome of the struggle and the fight of many people … some of them, courageous.” Also, religious freedom is interrelated with other basic freedoms: “freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly.” These freedoms, she said, “have come under assault” in recent years in many parts of the world, especially in China. “China has intensified its repression against all religions, and used the COVID-19 pandemic as pretext to increase the surveillance and control of its society. Religious practitioners continue to be harassed, sometimes tortured, arrested, detained, or imprisoned. And churches, temples, and other houses of worship are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate.”

But she said that there is “always light at the end of the tunnel. In Taiwan, we also suffered under some very difficult years at the beginning of our political evolution. But today, we subscribe to the notion that government neither impose nor deprive religious belief. People in Taiwan enjoy a high degree of religious freedom and diversity and places of worship for Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Christians, [and] Catholics flourish side by side. And people of different faiths and beliefs live harmoniously … religious freedom has also become central to our way of life in Taiwan.” Many religious groups and NGOs, and in particular, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, contributed to this. As Beijing escalates its political and military pressure against Taiwan, it is important that its freedom be defended (and, this writer would add, publicized). “It’s important that like-minded countries come together, speak out against abuses, and foster cooperation and support between governments, religious groups, and civil society, to show solidarity, and help support those who are oppressed by authoritarian regimes.”

Hsiao said that the “Noah’s ark” for refugees referred to earlier is “very often fragile, and under constant attack by China’s multiple level political interference campaigns, as well as the more obvious forms and effects that we are witnessing every day. And so while sometimes the government may appear cautious, I think we do it out of the interest in making progress as we continue to strengthen our infrastructure to better be that continuing bastion of freedom in our very challenging part the world, as we are witnessing the backslide of freedoms and democracy, not only in China, but in other parts of the region as well.” She added that Taiwan hosted the RFI roundtable in March 2019, “providing a platform for civil society dialogue and engagement in the region across different religious groups, but in the same goal of further securing religious freedom.”  Taiwan is also participates in international charity initiatives, supporting religious freedom.

The final panelist, Nadine Maenza, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said that USCIRF is “single focused on religious freedom.” It can react more quickly than other parts of the government (presumably including especially the White House or the State Department) to developments in international religious freedom. She spoke highly of the Taiwan International Religious Freedom Forum in 2019. “It was really powerful to understand,” she says, what Taiwan has accomplished in the area of religious freedom. She said that even though the focus in current events is often on “what’s going wrong,” attention also need to be paid to “what’s going right.” In Taiwan there is “an example of a … maturing democracy that respects and protects religious freedom and human rights” which stands “in stark contrast to mainland China.” She said USCIRF has asked that the 2022 Olympics be moved out of China. She also said that USCIRF believes that the internment and enslavement Uyghurs at the present time is “the largest mass internment of ethno-religious groups since World War II … Taiwan’s ‘soft power’ provides a stark contrast. Taiwan’s strength lies in its commitment to democratic values, religious freedom and human rights. And it can be a beacon of light to the many suffering Chinese believers who aspire to the same values.”  

In a question and answer session, Hsiao was asked what Taiwan’s role is in international religious freedom when Taiwan is under tremendous stress from communist China? Secondly, it was asked that since Taiwan handled the coronavirus pandemic very well, how can that experience be useful in the future in this regard?

Hsiao said that the tremendous threat that Taiwan is under makes it very important for Taiwan to continue to “fortify our democratic institutions and to work with other like-minded friends.” Often, as when Taiwan is trying to join the World Health Organization, the phrase used is “Taiwan can help.” Other countries and people are willing to help Taiwan, because Taiwan has helped them. She said that Taiwan “has been described as ‘force for good in the world.’” She believes that “it is critical for our survival that we continue to be that force for good.” She said “a force for good always has the support of guardian angels.” Also, “always guardian angels that show up at the right moment.” Saying she was someone from “a faithful family, I think it is important to keep that faith and hope in front of us.” Taiwan has participated with the U.S. in on a platform called GCTX, Global Cooperation and Training Framework. This was “a product of Taiwan’s isolation and marginalization from international organizations.” A variety of global issues such as coronavirus, disinformation, women’s economic empowerment, national development, and others has been very helpful, and is useful to other countries. . Taiwan also supports the Institute for Religious Freedom in Asia. Hsiao said that she has supported Taiwan’s refugee law as a legislator.

It is not an overstatement to say that freedom is Taiwan’s reason for being. Religious freedom is key to the other freedoms, and key in the moral struggle with the atheist dictatorship that poses such an ominous threat to Taiwan and Asia in general. Taiwan has done well in capitalizing on informal relations with other nations and societies in her struggle to survive and resist communist oppression, to the benefit of all. She deserves our prayers, and as far as possible, our political support, as she faces an uncertain future.

  1. Comment by Mary on September 16, 2021 at 10:12 am

    Thanks, Rick, for the excellent report. Very informative.

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