Our Freedom of Belief is in Peril

Author: Rita M. Joseph

Rita M. Joseph

[This article originally appeared in The Catholic Weekly, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, December 14, 1994, under the title "Our Freedom of Belief is in Peril".]

We Australians are a peculiar lot when it comes to religion. In general, championship of the underdog is deeply embedded in the Australian psyche. But there is a notable exception. When it comes to religious persecution, to discrimination against people on religious grounds, Australians are uncomfortable--they squirm a little, run their fingers inside their collars, and shrug it off with something non-committal. We are all for human rights and freedoms, but there is one human right which we seem reluctant to defend, viz. freedom of belief.

The Australian government provides little leadership on this one. Somehow, in the separation of Church and State, the State has become detached from the fundamental abiding duty to protect the rights of people to live according to their religious beliefs. That is why Australian government delegations who have visited China, for example, have ignored the blatant, well-documented abuses there of religious freedom. They have raised, albeit at a softly-softly level, breaches of political rights, economic rights, women's rights etc., but there has been a marked reluctance to criticize the numerous examples of imprisonment of religious leaders, and the discriminatory employment practices exercised against those who would practice religion not approved by the Chinese state.

The basic human right to practice one's faith in its fullness is commonly denied to China's estimated 7.6 million Chinese Catholics. The response by the Australian government has been abysmally limp. It has virtually ignored the vicious repression of Christian religions in China. It has, for example, turned a blind eye to the continued imprisonment and "re- education" of Chinese Christian leaders, many of them old and frail. China's Catholic bishops have all had at least one period of detention this year. Bishop Su Zhimin and Bishop Jia Zhiguo have each been imprisoned three times this year. Father Wei Jingyi was arrested earlier this year and remains behind bars without due process. There are many other priests being "cared for" in government- controlled "old people's homes", a euphemism for detention without trial. They are set to follow the heroic example of priests like Father Wang Ziyang who died in prison in 1990 at the age of 90 after 30 years imprisonment; and Bishop Fan Xueyan, who died in prison in 1992, aged 84, after 28 years imprisonment.

All of this may seem unreal and rather remote to Australian Catholics but a recent judgement by the Australian government's Refugee Review Tribunal brings it much closer to home. In an ethically questionable decision handed down on 31st October this year, the Tribunal appears to have become an apologist for the Chinese government's savage one-child population policy which, in flagrant violation of Christian values, relies heavily on enforced abortion and sterilization.

Several Protestant Christian couples, fleeing the brutality of this policy, arrived in Australia in July. They told the Tribunal of their deeply held religious objections to sterilization and abortion.

With chilling sophistry, the Australian Tribunal decided that, as refugees claiming to be fleeing from a country on the grounds of religious persecution, these couples had no case, since persecution is deemed not to be related to religion unless the persecutor is religiously motivated! The astoundingly invalid implication was that since sterilization and abortion are being imposed by an atheistic government on all women with equal severity, regardless of moral persuasions, there could be no additional offence to women whose conscience dictated that such practices were immoral.

In disallowing such violation of conscience as grounds for refugee status, the Tribunal has reflected the Chinese government's contempt for freedom of conscience. It is a contempt that has been, until now, quite alien to Australian values.

The Tribunal has failed to appreciate that freedom of conscience is a defining condition of so many other freedoms--freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from fear, freedom to vote, etc. Without freedom of conscience, democracy itself is impossible and, in truth, all human rights, political and civil, become meaningless.

It is time for the Australian government to assert unequivocal support for both freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, which are inextricably interrelated. It is time too for the Australian government to acknowledge openly and honestly the debt we Australians owe to our Christian heritage. The very concepts of human rights and of social justice were developed in a Christian milieu. They have been developed and refined over nearly 2000 years of Christian experience and scholarship of the human condition. The very formulation of conscience, the refinement of concepts of right and wrong, justice and injustice, compassion and cruelty--all owe a tremendous debt to religious formation. In view of this, it would be unbelievably crass to persist with the fictions that human rights can be divorced from religious belief, and that the right to hold firm to one's religious convictions can be relegated to the very bottom of the politically correct pecking order for human rights. . Meanwhile, Australian Catholics should be alerted to the implications of the decision. A new attitude towards freedom of conscience has been enunciated by official representatives of the Australian government. It would be foolishly racist to argue that the attitude behind the Tribunal's judgment applies only to Chinese women and would never be applicable to Australians. Neither should it be taken to apply only to applications for refugee status, whatever slick assurances to this effect are proffered.

It is not so hard to envisage an "environmentally motivated" Australian government dismissing Australian Catholics' claims for freedom of conscience and the right to reject contraception with its corollary of back-up abortion and sterilization. Such a dismissal of Catholic defenses may be justified on the grounds that the imposition of a one-or-two-child policy by the Australian government is motivated impartially and environmentally, not religiously. Once an official "thumbs down" has been given to conscientious religious objections regarding immoral and artificial tools of family limitation, it may become very difficult to reverse the official position.

Such a future scenario is not as improbable as we may like to think. The probability is very much increased by the development in Australian academic and political circles of a vociferous population-control lobby with growing clout. This lobby has orchestrated a powerful demand for an Australian "population policy". It has fostered propaganda that establishes a pseudo- scientific base for claiming that Australia is overpopulated in terms of "carrying capacity". It is lobbying for controls to be imposed on the size of Australian families. These are to start with incentives and disincentives, but who knows where they will end? Already AESP (Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population) has warned that the Chinese-style policy may be needed if Australians do not voluntarily limit their families.

Officially, the Australian government is very strong on "voluntarism", but it refuses to recognize the glaring flaw in population limitation policies. All such policies assume that contraceptives are sufficiently reliable to be able to limit family size to one or two children without enforced resort to sterilization or abortion. And they ignore the reality that has surfaced in the most recent research. Professor Malcolm Potts, former head of International Planned Parenthood, affirmed the necessity for heavy reliance on abortion and sterilization to achieve family limitation, at the Population and Development Ministerial Conference at the Australian National Academy of Science: "Given current contraceptive failure rates, it is impossible for the majority of society to achieve a family size of two or three without recourse to abortion or a very widespread use of voluntary surgical contraception early in married life." This is borne out also by Francine Coeytaux, researcher for the U.S. Population Council. She says that contraception is "far from ideal" and that 70% of women need at least one abortion during their lives if they are to restrict their fertility to two children.

What will this mean for Australian Catholics who have conscientious objections to sterilization and abortion? Assuredly, Australia's human rights record on freedom of conscience has been fairly good--to date. But is the Tribunal's trivialization of Chinese refugees' freedom of conscience pointing to a new official Australian government direction on this issue?

Whatever the answer, one thing's clear. Mr. Keating and Senator Evans have to tighten up their act on human rights abuse in population programs. No more $7 million gifts of Australian aid to China's population programs--no, Senator Evans, not even under the guise of "a demonstration project" to show the Chinese government how to achieve a one-child policy without coercion.

It is surely a matter for concern that Prime Minister Keating and Senator Evans have returned home from the APEC meeting in Bogor with a new faith in the power of free trade to correct all human rights abuse. They assure us that, as Chinese markets open up to capitalist countries, the Chinese people themselves will demand democracy and human rights. We have all seen, however, what happens when Chinese people dare to express such demands...the good old Tiananmen Square treatment. Far from loosening up, the Chinese government is said to have embarked on a tighter totalitarian policy that has been called "wei sung nei jin", i.e. outside loosening up, inside clampdown.

Indeed, the Keating/Evans thesis ignores the reality that economic advancement is financing an even more militarily powerful and repressive authoritarianism. China last year spent $70 billion building up its armed forces and equipping them with technologically advanced munitions.

Growing Chinese military power underscores a growing Chinese cultural arrogance in international affairs. It is an arrogance that enables China to continue to argue, as at the U.N. 1993 Vienna Human Rights Conference, that human rights are Western values that are not applicable to Asia.

China's recent victory over the USA's feeble attempt to chide Chinese human rights abuses by withholding MFN (most favored nation) status seems to have had a singularly unfortunate consequence. It has confirmed China in its contempt for Western morality. China is now confident that international concern at Chinese human rights violations will always take second place to international greed for a share in the trade and commerce being generated by the phenomenal Chinese economic growth.

Economic advantage has dictated the West's withdrawal from what was ever only a flabby, half-hearted attack on the human rights violations in China. Where was the concerted moral firmness that sanctioned effective universal condemnation on trade with South Africa and brought down apartheid?

One line of attempted justification favored by Mr. Keating and Senator Evans is that more can be accomplished through dialogue than through sanctions. But as Amnesty International Secretary- General Pierre Sane pointed out last month: "Australia speaks confidently of the success of its 'quiet diplomacy' approach to human rights...but where is the evidence? The facts just do not support the assertion."

Senator Evans seems to be overestimating his own personal skills at maintaining dialogue with the Chinese government. It would seem that Senator Evans only monologues. Chinese officials, I suspect, smile politely at Senator Evans, take the Australian aid money he holds out, and send him home to boast to Australians of his successful dialoguing, the brilliance of which cannot be revealed because it was "high-level discussion" of such "sensitivity" that it requires the utmost "confidentiality"! This was the gist of the reply to Senator Rod Kemp and Senator Brian Harradine when they queried Evans's glowing self-assessment of his effectiveness in a "softly, softly" approach on human rights (Hansard 24/5/94).

Australians need to challenge the Keating/Evans ambivalence which appears to want an end to the Chinese government's one-child policy human rights violations--but not just yet. There seems to be a sneaking approval for the "good" results of the brutal policy. Has this attitude colored the decisions of the Refugee Review Tribunal? If so, it would seem that the Refugee Review Tribunal itself is desperately in need of review.

In the meantime, the Tribunal would do well to study the recent judgment handed down in the U.S. by Judge David Ayala when he granted asylum to a Chinese refugee who with her relatives had suffered horrific abuse under China's one-child policy. The right to bodily integrity and the right to procreate, he said, are universally recognized as fundamental human rights.

If denial of these fundamental human rights is not a sufficient condition for refugee status, then what, in God's name, is? There can be no one more interested in the answer than that small group of Chinese refugees suffering in mounting hopelessness behind the dismal camp gate of the Port Hedland Detention Centre.