A Taiwanese official made headlines for her attendance at the Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom at the United Nations (UN) on September 23. Lily Hsu (徐儷文), director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (駐紐約台北經濟文化辦事處) , was invited to attend the religious freedom event hosted by President Donald J. Trump at UN headquarters in New York. At the meeting, Trump called on the international community to protect communities of faith and end religious persecution. “As a free and open democracy, Taiwan is committed to furthering the cause of religious freedom in the Indo-Pacific,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted after the event.
Over the past few years, the United States and Taiwan have found common cause on the issue of religious freedom and have collaborated in ways that strengthen their bilateral relations. The US Department of State held the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July 2018 and called on states to create Ambassador at Large positions for religious freedom after the Trump administration appointed Sam Brownback as the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) responded by appointing Pusin Tali (布興·大立), president of the Yu-Shan Theological College and Seminary, as Taiwan’s first Ambassador at Large for religious freedom. The Taiwan government also pledged to donate a total of USD $1 million, or $200,000 per year for five years, to the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Fund (I-ReFF) to promote religious freedom around the world.
In March 2019, Taipei hosted the first ever regional religious forum, “A Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region,” attended by US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and experts and officials from more than 10 countries. Later in July, Taiwanese official—Stanley Kao, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States, and Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Pusin Tali—attended the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.
At a time when the United States is renewing its focus on religious freedom, Taiwan has also been strengthening domestic and overseas efforts to promote cultural and religious ties with multiple communities of faith particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. A notable example is Taiwan government’s initiatives to promote ties with the Muslim world, particularly as Taipei pursues its “New Southbound Policy” (新南向政策) with Southeast Asian and South Asian countries. The Chinese Muslim Association (中國回教協會) based in Taipei noted that the Taiwan government has made significant improvements in the rights of Muslims by increasing the number of halal-certified restaurants from 120 to 160 in 2018 and building new prayer rooms at train stations, tourist attractions, and libraries, according to the US Department of State’s 2018 International Religious Freedom Report.
Indeed, the State Department’s previous religious freedom reports found no cases of significant societal actions in Taiwan that adversely affected religious freedom. However, the issue of labor rights for domestic workers has been commonly noted in the 2018 annual report, released in June 2019, and previous annual reports. The International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 stated, “Domestic service workers and caretakers are not covered under the labor standards law and are therefore not legally guaranteed a weekly rest day. Due to this exclusion, many domestic workers were not able to attend religious services.” The concern is that workers from Indonesia, who are largely Muslim, and those from the Philippines, who are mostly Roman Catholic, may not be able to attend Friday prayers at the mosque or Sunday church services, respectively.
The 2018 International Religious Freedom Report also notes the continued difficulty of Tibetan Buddhist monks in obtaining resident visas to perform religious work in Taiwan. The Tibet Religious Foundation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (達賴喇嘛西藏宗教基金會) in Taipei reported that Tibetan Buddhist monks were unable to obtain resident visas and had to go through the cumbersome process of renewing their visas in Thailand every two months. Taiwan’s government responded that the Tibetan monks did not have passports and instead traveled using Indian Identity Certificates (ICs), and said Taiwan issued temporary religious visas to IC holders. The Tibet Religious Foundation, whose stated objective is to “develop mutual understanding and co-operation between the Tibetan and Taiwanese people,” also reported that Tibetan Buddhists were being harassed by a Buddhist organization in Taiwan, the True Enlightenment Practitioners Association (佛教正覺同修會), which is allegedly funded by China and is spreading messages that “Tibetan Buddhism is not real Buddhism.” The American Institute in Taipei (AIT) has consulted with the Chinese Muslim Association, Tibet Religious Foundation, and other faith-based organizations in Taiwan, and has raised such issues of concern with Taiwanese government officials and lawmakers.
At a time when Beijing has interned one million Uyghur Muslims and is “Sinicizing” Islam and tightening controls on Christianity in China, Taiwan’s clear record on religious freedom draws a stark contrast and serves to strengthen Taiwan’s soft power. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have sought to erase foreign influence associated with Islam and Christianity, such as by removing Arabic script from mosques and Muslim restaurants and replacing Arab-style minarets with Chinese-style architecture. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) posted a video on its Facebook page in April 2019 referencing the brutality of the Chinese Communist regime’s treatment of Uyghurs. The DPP’s Facebook post reminded Taiwanese “not to remain silent when we see human rights being violated.” Yet, Radio Free Asia reported in May 2019 that the Tsai Administration denied visas to the Dalai Lama and Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer, who were supposed to attend the Taiwan International Religious Freedom Forum in Hsinchu on May 30. Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, was also denied a visa to travel to Taiwan to attend religious freedom forums during both the Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai administrations.
Historically, China’s persecuted religious communities have found refuge in Taiwan. Since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, those that fled to Taiwan with the Kuomintang (KMT) included religious groups, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hui Muslims, who fought alongside the KMT against the Chinese Communists. Though Taiwan was not the main destination for many of these groups, with many of these refugees fleeing to India, Central Asia, and the Middle East, some of them did nonetheless settle in Taiwan and contributed to the island’s religious diversity.
More recently, Falun Gong members, who face severe persecution and were banned in China in 1999, have found a safe haven in Taiwan. Banners declaring that “Falun Gong is Great” (法輪大法好) can be seen throughout Taiwan. The Falun Gong Society of Taiwan estimates there are hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in Taiwan. Yet, there have been reports of Chinese interference efforts to reduce Falun Gong activities and discredit the group in Taiwan. Chinese government authorities reportedly requested Radio Taiwan International (RTI) to roll back the programming hours for Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong radio show in Taiwan. RTI, however, renewed its contract with Sound of Hope for another year.
While Taiwan’s values on religious freedom have become another marker of its national identity that distinguishes itself from China, the emphasis on protecting religious beliefs and expression is more a by-product of the island’s democratic consolidation and protection of civil liberties—alongside freedom of speech and an independent media—rather than an attempt to be different from China. Taiwan’s path towards religious freedom has also been shaped by the role of civic faith-based organizations in the island’s social fabric, charity, and politics. Former President Ma said Taiwan’s religious groups are active in providing disaster relief, which caused many Taiwanese to “recognize and have an awareness for the important role played by religion.” Local Buddhist organizations such as Tzu Chi Foundation (慈濟基金會) have often been first responders—sometimes arriving to the scene before local government authorities do—by providing aid and assistance to victims of natural disasters, ranging from floods to earthquakes.
Religious organizations are part of Taiwan’s teeming civil society. At a time when Taiwan faces challenges in gaining recognition on the international stage, it is imperative for it to strengthen its internal legitimacy such as by guaranteeing people’s freedoms, including on religion. As a corollary to the security aspects of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, Taiwan and the United States should also highlight common democratic and political values such as religious freedom as part of a broader strategy to bolster the democratic alliance in the region. Taiwan and the United States can strengthen bilateral cooperation in promoting religious freedom through Taiwan’s support of U.S.-led initiatives to protect persecuted religious minorities, while Washington should continue to invite Taipei to participate in bilateral and multilateral forums on religious freedom and tolerance.
The main point: Taiwan has championed the cause of religious freedom and tolerance, which not only provides another avenue for US-Taiwan cooperation, but also helps to elevate its soft power with other communities of faith especially in the Indo-Pacific region.