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World: Analysis From Washington--Religious Faith And Political Change

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 30 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The ongoing Chinese crackdown on a faith-based organization calls attention to the ability of religions across the world not only to change the values of individuals but also to affect the balance of political power within a society.

Nowhere is this more true than in communist and post-communist countries. But the impact of a growing interest in religious faith depends both on the nature of the religion involved and on the attitudes and concerns of the state.

Over the past several weeks, Beijing has launched a sweeping attack on Falun Gong, a quasi-religious movement that has attracted perhaps as many as two million adherents. Among these are numerous Communist Party functionaries, who, in the words of a "Financial Times" editorial this week, no longer want to live "by bread alone."

There appear to be three reasons for Beijing's current effort: First, the communist authorities there have always sought to stamp out alternative sources of belief. Second, they view this organization as a potential alternative rallying point for those who may be disaffected with communism.

And third, at least some of them appear to believe that the rise of such groups could threaten China's highly centralized political system and even contribute to the growth of regional challenges to Beijing's continued rule.

Whether Beijing will succeed in its campaign to suppress Falun Gong remains uncertain. But the political impact of religion continues to be a very real issue, particularly in post-communist countries where ever more people are seeking to recover from the atheistic past by turning to religion.

In some of these countries, the political authorities are actively promoting a return to religion. Sometimes they are doing so out of a belief that attachment to religion will contribute to greater social order and cohesion. And sometimes, they act in this way because they see the church as supporting the rebirth of the state.

Both of these motives appear to be operating in the Russian Federation. There President Boris Yeltsin and others have reached out to the Orthodox Church both because of church's moral teachings and because of the latter's traditional support of the state.

In yet another group of countries, political leaders attempting to contain or even suppress religion either because they see it as a challenge to the secular ideology they hope to promote or because they believe that religion is in fact a cover for political activity.

This appears to be particularly true in the historically Islamic countries of Central Asia, where greater popular attachment to Islam not only challenges the secular values of the current elites but also their political control as well.

But in most of the countries in this region, the political authorities have adopted a more differentiated approach, welcoming the growth of some religions and actively seeking to oppose that of others.

In countries as different as the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan, the governments have sought to contain or even suppress missionary activity by religious groups these two governments view as either undermining their respective national cultures or their political control.

Quite often attacks on such groups, either through the use of legislation as in the Russian Federation or simple police power as in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are accompanied by suggestions by the political elite that these nominally religious groups are in fact deeply political or even terrorist in nature.

Such comments, of course, implicitly testify to the power of religion in these societies. But they are profoundly disturbing in a double sense. On the one hand, they suggest that the regimes in these countries are likely to continue to violate a fundamental human right of their citizens.

And on the other, they point to the further politicization of both the religious organizations the state seeks to exploit and of the faiths that the political authorities in some of these countries are trying to suppress.

Because of that very real possibility, those political leaders who do not change their approach are likely to produce in these countries precisely what they most fear, a religious faith that is deeply politicized. And that in turn is likely to subvert not only the prospects for democracy but for religion as well.