Protesters hold up a lighted candles to show solidarity in Bandung, Indonesia, on May 13, 2017, for the release of Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok.” Ahok was jailed for two years after being found guilty of blasphemy, in a decision that stoked concerns over religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Protesters hold up a lighted candles to show solidarity in Bandung, Indonesia, on May 13, 2017, for the release of Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok.” Ahok was jailed for two years after being found guilty of blasphemy, in a decision that stoked concerns over religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. (photo: Timur Matahari / AFP via Getty Images)

Facing a Rise in Religous Repression in India and Elsewhere in South Asia (Season 4 — Ep. 3)

In most South and Southeast Asian countries, ‘religion is a powerful force, and in most of them, more radical forms of the religion have been getting stronger,’ says religious freedom expert Paul Marshall. ‘I would say the overall pattern is increased tension, increased repression.’

Paul Marshall [00:01]: In almost every one of those countries, religion is a powerful force, and in most of them, more radical forms of the religion have been getting stronger. So this has been very bad, especially for religious minorities. And each country is of course different, but I would say the overall pattern is increased tension, increased repression.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer [00:28]: That was Professor Paul Marshall, noted religious freedom scholar. Paul will be joining us in a bit on an important episode of Religious Freedom Matters. I’m Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, director of The Conscience Project, and I’m joined by Joan Desmond, Senior Editor at the National Catholic Register, as we continue to look at matters related to international religious freedom. Welcome, Joan.

Joan Desmond [00:51]: Great to be with you, Andrea.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer [00:53]: Joan and I are thrilled to begin this episode focusing on South and Southeast Asia with a conversation with Professor Paul Marshall, the Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and a research professor in political science. Paul also heads the South and Southeast Asia program at the Religious Freedom Institute and is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He’s the author and editor of more than 20 books on religion and politics, including the best-selling, award-winning survey of religious persecution worldwide, Their Blood Cries Out. Welcome to Religious Freedom Matters, Professor Marshall.

Paul Marshall [01:33]: Thank you very much, Andrea. It’s great to be here.

Joan [01:36]: Thanks so much for joining us. 

Andrea [01:40]: Paul, to give our listeners important background, help us with an overview of religion in South and Southeast Asia. I know that we’re talking about a range of religious traditions, though (correct me if I’m wrong) I think we’re saying that only in the Philippines Christians are in the majority. So we’re talking about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism — all three of which are effectively state religions in countries that oftentimes deal with religious minorities in a less-than-ideal fashion. Is that a fair assessment?

Paul [02:09]: Yes, I think it is. In almost every one of those countries, religion is a powerful force. And in most of them, more radical forms of the religion have been getting stronger. So this has been very bad, especially for religious minorities. And each country is of course different. But I would say the overall pattern is increased tension, increased repression. 

Joan [02:38]: So what sorts of affronts to religious freedom occur? We know, for example, that both state and non-state actors are involved, but the line between them can be blurred at times. Governments in this region have been accused of tolerating, or even encouraging, vigilante attacks on religious minorities. Can you offer specific examples that highlight serious, as well as more subtle, forms of religious discrimination and persecution?

Paul [03:05]: In India, you get a combination of societal violence combined with government repression, and then government tolerance, of attacks. A bit of background here: In India, you’ve had an increasingly radical form of Hinduism, which basically says that India is Hindu. Other people might be allowed to live here, but India is basically for the Hindus. And the current government under Prime Minister Modi is very much in that mindset. So one of the things which has been happening is, you’re getting increasing mob attacks on Muslims and Christians. They are being defamed in the media with false accusations, and in many of these cases the police just stand by. They don’t do anything. In other cases you’re getting arrests of ... frequently, you’re getting arrests of Christian priests and pastors, who are accused of forcibly trying to convert Hindus. So India covers the whole range, and the various forms of repression are intertwined.

Andrea [04:25]: We’ve also seen a number of incidents, especially attacks on Catholic churches in India, and especially in the more rural areas, where these faith-based Catholic-run organizations are so vital to a social safety net for the region. Is that a concern, that people will, if there’s an attack against Christians ... they’ll be obviously going underground to not be persecuted, and these institutions that are so important for the well-being of the most vulnerable may disappear?

Paul [05:01]: Yes, I think that’s a very good point. One of the features of Christians in India is working very much in outreach in support for the poor, particularly for the Dalit, whom we used to call “untouchables,” whose situation is still bad in India. And sometimes the attacks on churches, particularly Catholic churches ... one feature is that people are opposed to their work with the poor, particularly people who exploit them. So there is an economic justice aspect to these, that you don’t want the Church trying to help transform the society. And with these attacks, that sort of supportive work may indeed be undercut, which will affect a whole range of Indians, particularly the poorest.

Just as an aside, by the way, many of the more radical Hindu groups in the governing BJP party have accused Christians across the board of doing manipulative forms of proselytism and conversion, and have been suspicious about Christian schools, and often accuse especially Catholic schools of being hidden forces for the conversion of Hindus.

And I haven’t checked recently with the cabinet, but at the time these accusations were being made 15, 20 years ago, it turned out most of the cabinet had actually been educated in (particularly) Jesuit schools, because these are the best schools in the country. So the elites, that’s where they want to send their kids to. So it’s funny to have people who graduate from Christian schools disparaging Christian organizations.

Joan [07:06]: Well, I know a lot of Catholics were taken aback when they heard that Mother Teresa’s order had experienced problems with the government. I think they thought that that order, at the very least, because of its global presence and status, would be above that kind of harassment — but it did happen even at that level. 

Meanwhile, let’s turn for a minute to Pakistan, where the Christian minority there, as we know, has really been subject to a lot of harassment. I think one of the most interesting things people are now looking at is social media-linked violence against religious minorities. And to some degree, having lived in South Asia for four years, I thought, well, in a way, this is a reprise of the general violence, some of it manipulative, and it has multiple purposes.

Like, let’s say somebody wants the property where these Christian minorities are living, and then they stir up a big hullabaloo over some sort of very questionable charge, and then people come in to attack that religious minority, and then other people swoop in afterward and take over the property or the business. So, let’s talk about Pakistan for a minute. And we have heard about social media stuff going on — is this a continuation, or are we also seen something new going on here?

Paul [08:23]: It’s a continuation that blasphemy accusations have always been there, but it’s been getting worse. There were stringent anti-blasphemy laws brought in the 1980s — they’ve even been tightened up, and the rate of accusations has been increasing. As you mentioned, many of these can be private feuds — you know, somebody wants a Christian’s land and you accuse them of blasphemy. And it’s very hard for them to be acquitted because if you’re dealing with Sharia Islamic law courts in Pakistan, the testimony of a Christian accounts for less than that of a Muslim. So, if there were only two people there and the Christian is accused of blasphemy, the preponderance of evidence would be against them. So the way the law is enforced makes these things worse.

But even worse than the law is what happens in society. If someone is accused of blasphemy, they are often killed by a mob. They may even try and run to the police station or get inside a prison where you might be safe. So it seems, almost weekly now, we’re getting reports of people being attacked by mobs or vigilantes because they’ve been accused of blasphemy. This gets whipped up on social media, but also there seem to be cases where a person is accused of blasphemy because of something which appears on their Facebook page, but they say it’s been hacked. Facebook pages are not that hard to hack. A person would be really, really stupid to put something potentially blasphemous on their Facebook page. So social media are being used to sponsor false charges of blasphemy as well. 

Andrea [10:30]: You know, this reminds me a lot of the horrible, difficult and tragic situation that Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Catholic mother, faced, where she was accused of blasphemy by another farm worker in the field over a fight about the use of the drinking (water), and she suffered for years in prison. She was in isolation because of concerns of retribution by fellow inmates. She’s since been freed, but she had to leave her homeland in order to be able to live in freedom, even though she was acquitted of charges.

And it seems, just like you were saying before, Professor, that this can be a ruse to silence any kind of dissent, and to really put a stranglehold over religious expression and speech in general. I know you’ve been among the leaders on the international front trying to push countries to get rid of blasphemy laws. What’s been the receptivity of countries to question these laws and their execution or their administration, or poor administration?

Paul [11:49]: It varies. Just a background on this: I became interested and focused on blasphemy, because blasphemy laws create all the other sorts of problems. It first hit me when a magazine editor in Afghanistan published an article saying, “Is it really the case that we should kill someone who apostatizes from Islam?” And then he was accused of blasphemy and in fact was imprisoned for two years for the article. And nothing he said was blasphemous. They said, “But to question what we think are Islamic precepts is blasphemous.” So that means you can’t even discuss other issues if you’re going to get accused of blasphemy. And this came up with questions of adultery and so on. So that radicals — apart from all the other uses — radicals used blasphemy laws to shut down discussion or criticism of what they believe. So it’s very difficult to tackle other problems with blasphemy laws in the way. …

Accusations of blasphemy are usually not against people who we think of normally as blaspheming, saying something slanderous about God or someone’s beliefs. They’re often people who raise questions — Muslim intellectuals from Iran, grand ayatollahs in Iran, have been thrown into prison for blasphemy because they disagree with the government ... a three-volume work on the Islamic theory of the state by a pious Muslim, and he’s accused of blasphemy because he disagreed with Khomeini.

So this shutting down of debate and then, again, controlling your enemies — this is getting worse in Pakistan. In other places, I hope it’s easing up. If you take the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia — which is relatively free, but they still have blasphemy laws — in one very famous case, the Christian governor of the capital (Jakarta), an ethnic Chinese named Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison for purported blasphemy in a campaign speech he made — which again, going back to social media, someone doctored and took out a couple of phrases and then reposted it, and more people saw the doctored version of the speech than saw the original. So that I think things will improve, and Indonesia has a very good minister of religious affairs now. But in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the situation is getting worse.

Joan [15:00]: Why is it that one country like Indonesia, the sprawling archipelago — it’s such a diverse country, it’s just massive — and it’s had its fair share in the past of tribal violence, ethnic violence. But it seems to be going on the right path, though apparently it did get put on the watch list recently for the International Religious Freedom Commission. So maybe you can talk briefly about that. But on the other hand, India and Pakistan ... India has had a long history of democracy. It started off as a secular state, a consciously secular state. Pakistan, a very different situation. So you have three different histories, contexts. What do you think has led? Is it purely leadership? Are there other factors that you’re getting to understand better about what leaves one country to become more free with religious freedom and another not to?

Paul [15:53]: I think one factor is that people feel threatened. It would be a long discussion, but with globalization ... the image I use, if you were living in a village in northern India or Indonesia in Java 100 years ago, 150 years ago, and you were Hindu or Muslim, you didn’t think about it much, because everybody you knew was Hindu or Muslim. You didn’t think much about what you would do when you grew up. You’d be a peasant like your mother and father. So life was given.

And then challenges come. If the roads improve, you start to meet different people. You might see books; you might see magazines. And then there’s a radio, and then there’s a TV, and then there’s the internet. And now you are subject to all these different influences. You’re aware of people very different from you, who are questioning what you think. So what before could be taken for granted now has to be adopted, appropriated, chosen. And it’s disputed. So, people in traditional ways of life or traditional religions, I think, feel threatened and challenged. We see that on a different sort of level in the United States as well.

So even to stay where you are ... to shift the image, it’s like a gale is blowing. And to stay where you are, you have to sort of lean into that bridge. You have to be more active. So the challenge of globalization, I think, threatens many people, and so they want to put as many barriers as they can around their religious beliefs and practice. And then if you get leaders ... particularly authoritarian leaders will take advantage of this. This has happened throughout the history of Pakistan, particularly when the military has come into power. So, a sense of being threatened, being challenged by new ways of life, which then politicians manipulate. In very broad strokes, I think that’s the largest current, which is leading to this increased repression and particularly questions of blasphemy.

Andrea [18:37]: Paul, here in the U.S. our religious freedom is strained. And one of the greatest, most recent strains has been, of course, the pandemic, and the reaction of some government officials to target houses of worship and restrict people’s access. And at the same time, the challenge of the pandemic has helped people focus their faith. Many people have grown in their faith during this difficult time. How has the pandemic affected the region (of South and Southeast Asia), as far as the strength of religious belief and challenges to religious freedom, or increased incidents of persecution because of the strain that the pandemic is putting on communities — whether it’s economic strain or isolation — and this authoritarian instinct that a lot of governments have picked up on?

Paul [19:34]: In terms of people’s overall religious beliefs, I would say (in) South Asia, Southeast Asia in general, it’s probably strengthened people’s religious beliefs. You’ve had, in many cases where you don’t have developed government programs, religious institutions have often been the ones at the forefront of dealing with COVID cases, general health questions or the poverty which comes where, because of COVID, you don’t have a job anymore. So, religious institutions have been important there. Also when there’s challenge and threat, people’s religious beliefs and practices mean much more to them. So that comes out.

What we also find is that COVID restrictions — governments have again used them more against religious minorities. And increasing documentation ... if you look at places in India, or if you look at Myanmar, then (you’ll) find that, in the case of India, Muslim and Christian groups have had more restrictions on them in Myanmar. If you’re not a Buddhist, then there’s been more restrictions. So that’s particularly affected Muslims and Christians. So again, the pattern of increased repression of minorities who are put under restrictions which are not applied to the majority of religion.

Joan [21:28]: Paul, what can be done in the international community and in the United States government to help advance the cause of religious freedom in a region when some of the world’s most religiously intolerant governments are also important Western allies? This has been an ongoing issue for American policy for a long time and it continues to this day. But there’s also an added complicating factor which is (that) our government doesn’t prioritize religious freedom as much as it has at different points. So, lots of questions. I thought you could just give your own thoughts on that. 

Paul [22:02]: In terms of our own government, it should report on these things accurately. In some cases, when we’re dealing with an ally, or a country we want as an ally, often our reportage can be soft-pedaled. As you mentioned in the case of ... if we go back to India, by far the largest country in that area, the U.S. very much wants India as an ally against China, or at least as a counterweight to China. So that’s one reason we often have soft-pedaled the criticism in India.

But there are a few things we could do. One is to report honestly. And the second is to seek to convince these governments that religious repression is not in their interest. We can say it’s a bad, it’s an evil, it’s an unjust thing. Say those too. But there’s enough evidence now to say, “But this doesn’t help you. If you repress minority religions (or majority religions), in some cases, you’re likely to get more violence. Your economic growth will suffer, your education levels will suffer. Religious repression is a loser. If you want your country to do well, you’d be well advised to steer clear of this.” And that can lead ... it has programs working with people ... especially in Vietnam, this has had some effect in their case. I think also in Indonesia.

Andrea [23:58]: I think you’re absolutely right, and you of course know this, but I’ve been always impressed with the Religious Freedom Institute for making the point that religious freedom helps national security issues, and whether this is a concern for some of the country’s leaders in the region that we’re talking about, it actually advances the interests of women when a country has strong protections for religious freedom. And we can see (this), especially in the case of someone like Asia Bibi.

But also for these other incidental interests that are becoming more and more prioritized by the Department of State — for example, the interest of the LGBTQ community is actually further served by strong and robust protections for religious freedom. And it’s always troubling when we think of civil rights or human rights being an either/or, or crumbs under the table. All boats are raised and I’m hoping that at least our current (and our new) ambassador for international religious freedom continues what was the tradition that the former ambassador Sam Brownback did — who, as a Christian Catholic, advanced and advocated for the religious freedom of non-Christians. Our current ambassador is the first Muslim, which is great, and can really be that standard that religious freedom isn’t just for our own but is for all believers to be able to seek that important truth. So I think that there’s a lot of work that we can do, both as a Church and as a country, but the work is going to be tough going, it seems.

So I want to thank you again, Professor Marshall. This has been an incredible conversation, as I suspected it would be. Many thanks again for joining us on this episode. You can find out more about what Professor Marshall is doing by checking out his expert page at the Hudson institute. He’s really just prolific and been a leader not just in this region but on the issue of religious freedom internationally for a long while. And it’s just been a treat to have you here to join us and inform us on an area that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface on.

Paul [26:18]: Okay, thank you very much indeed, Andrea and Joan.

Andrea [26:21]: Well, Joan, I thought that that was a fascinating overview of some of the issues, and the complicated issues, related to religious freedom in South and Southeast Asia. Professor Marshall was exceptional. Did not let anyone down, I’m hoping. And I just wanted to flag for everyone listening that there is a really beautiful movement and presence, especially the Catholic Church in this region, that sometimes is overlooked here in the United States. We play such an important role in advancing religious freedom in the region and also giving witness. 

There will be an upcoming canonization of an Indian-born martyr, Devasahayam Pillai. (It’s a regional name for “Lazarus.”) He was a Christian that was martyred in 1724 after enduring a lengthy and horrific torture because of his faith. He’ll be the first lay Catholic in India to be publicly recognized as a saint. And the Church in India is preparing — they will be canonizing him May 15. And I really think it’s an opportunity for us not only to celebrate the witness that he gave — and that today’s Catholics are giving — to the faith, but also to pray for this celebration to be peaceful.

Joan [27:47]: Absolutely. And you know, having lived in India for four years, Andrea, I can tell you many examples of truly devout Christian Catholic witness — people facing persecution, missionaries facing death to bring the faith and services to the needy. Really, really crucial importance of the role of Christian outreach in this part of the world, both for Christians and non-Christians — for the needy, for those who because of caste-related issues may feel they don’t deserve any such services, may not even respect their own fundamental human dignity. That Christian message is really important for them. There is no aggressive, manipulative effort to convert anybody, but there is a strong emphasis on outreach and support and accompaniment to those in need, those who are persecuted. I’m so happy that we can have a chance to respect and acknowledge this witness of this new saint.

Andrea [28:47]: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I’m Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, director of The Conscience Project and your co-host for Religious Freedom Matters. Check out all of our Religious Freedom Matters episodes on this special series of international religious freedom at the landing page of the National Catholic Register ( and the website of The Conscience Project at To listen to more episodes, you can also subscribe to Religious Freedom Matters on your favorite podcast platform. It’s been a pleasure for Joan and I to join you. And again, thank you so much, Joan, for being my co-host on Religious Freedom Matters. It’s always a great treat to get your wisdom and your insight.

Joan [29:31]: Agreed. A great pleasure for me, too.