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TAIWAN: Taiwan’s religious success story in South East Asia

TAIWAN: Taiwan’s religious success story

By Knox Thames

Taipei Times (19.11.2023) – Taiwan has a good story to tell regarding religious coexistence and religious freedom. The peaceful coexistence of multiple sacred sites from different faith and belief communities found across the island is tangible proof. Every context is different, but as a young and pluralistic democracy, Taiwan’s positive approach provides a model for the region to emulate.

Taiwan is a religious place. Survey work by Academia Sinica in 2021 found a vibrant religious scene. Approximately 67 percent of the population exclusively practices traditional folk religions, Buddhism and Taoism, their research shows. These traditional Chinese faiths have been present in Taiwan since the 17th century due to migration from the mainland, practiced alongside the indigenous religions.

During the Dutch and Spanish era of trade and exploration, missionaries introduced Christianity to the island. Today, 7 percent practice Christianity, and 24 percent identify themselves as nonbelievers. The remaining identify with various faiths, including Islam, Bahaism, the Unification Church and others.

Since Taiwan’s democratisation, the island has experienced a growth in religious communities. Taiwan has learned how to be a leader in the region on democracy and human rights. Taiwan’s constitution protects religious freedom. Article 7 guarantees equality before the law, regardless of “sex, religion, race, class, or party affiliation.”

Regarding religious freedom, Article 13 succinctly states, “The people shall have freedom of religious belief,” and Article 14 states, “The people shall have freedom of assembly and association.” Taiwan recieves high scores in the Freedom House index for political rights and civil liberties.

Multiple sacred sites dot the island, a physical manifestation of Taiwan’s religious freedoms. Successful religious cohabitation is demonstrated by the syncretism seen at some temples of the three major religious traditions in Taiwan: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. “Many of the temples in Taiwan reflect a fusion of all three traditions,” Cultural Atlas observed.

However, the fusion, while accepted today, was at times forced. It was said that: “This is in part due to Japanese occupation, which led many Taoists to secretly worship in Buddhist temples.”

Taiwan is not alone in its diversity, as Asia is a deeply religious region, with thousands of sacred heritage sites bearing witness to the long history of many faiths. While membership in a belief community has spiritual importance, the Pew Research Center said that many in the broader region consider membership in a country’s majority religion “very important to national identity.”

In some contexts, this has led to repression, such as the actions of the Burmese regime against Rohingya Muslims or Beijing against Uighur Muslims. Governments in Vietnam and India have responded with a heavy hand to their minority faith communities.

Singapore, also a place of religious diversity and social harmony, provides an interesting comparison to Taiwan. An island nation, the city-state of Singapore is considerably smaller, with one-fourth of Taiwan’s population. However, like Taiwan, the multiplicity of faiths is evident in the broad array of churches, temples and mosques. The Pew Research Center states that in Singapore: “26% identify as Buddhist, 18% as Muslim, 17% as Christian, 8% as Hindu, 6% as a follower of Chinese traditional religions like Taoism or Confucianism, and 4% as some other religion, including Indigenous religions. Another 22% do not identify with any religion.”

No other country in the region has such balanced religious demographics.

Article 15 of the Singaporean constitution states: “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.”

US Department of State reports highlight how Singapore’s legal system ensures the “right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to, or employment in, any office under a public authority.”

However, Singapore is less open to democracy, scoring lower than Taiwan on the Freedom House’s democracy index, described as only “partly free.”

Restrictions also impact religious life, and the Pew Research Center found Singaporean government policies greatly curtailed freedom of expression regarding religious issues in the name of national security and religious harmony.

A recent report by the Asia Centre described the Singaporean government as “‘engineers’ [of] a national sense of social and religious harmony with the narrative that the Chinese population, despite constituting the majority, does not demand special privileges, so that other minority groups can enjoy equal rights.”

Singapore’s management of religious life at times conflicts with international human rights standards. However, its stability has provided an environment of remarkable tolerance and coexistence, which has contributed to national unity. Yet while Singapore shares notable commonalities with Taiwan, Taiwan’s approach has found a way to foster peaceful religious coexistence in the context of a full democracy.

Taiwan stands apart in the region for its religious diversity, interfaith harmony, freedom and democracy. Our research program hopes to explore how the presence of Taiwan’s many sacred sites contributes to respect for pluralism and diversity. Understanding Taiwan’s success could inform reform programs elsewhere.

Highlighting this good news story would contribute to Taiwan’s effort to expand international contacts and overcome its diplomatic isolation, but in a way that does not directly confront mainland China. Taiwan’s sacred sites stand as physical testimony to their successful approach.

Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the US State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University.

Further reading about FORB in Taiwan on HRWF website

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TAIWAN: No anti-cult activity, no religious intolerance: the example of Taiwan

Visit of the headquarters of a minority religion in Taiwan, Jehovah’s Witnesses (Credit: HRWF)

TAIWAN: No anti-cult activity, no religious intolerance: the example of Taiwan

Are European states in a position to teach lessons to other countries about religious inclusion and religious tolerance? Taiwan might be.

By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (21.08.2023) – Taiwan is home to a wide range of religious or belief communities, either theistic or non-theistic, and no societal or state intolerance is reported in this country, including towards so-called new religious movements, while this is not the case in Europe. Why?


During two trips to Taiwan this year, I took a close look at this culture of tolerance and inclusiveness and I wondered why in Europe a number of states with a dominant Christian religion in their history had developed a culture of intolerance, suspicion and stigmatization about new religious movements. Some short reflections on this issue.


Religious intolerance in Europe


One of the factors fueling religious intolerance on the European continent is the activity of former members of non-traditional religious or belief communities who have left them in the midst of a conflict and who are driven by a spirit of revenge. Groups of apostates have thus formed out of common hostility to various movements, which they have designated as dangerous and harmful cults, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna, Mormons, the Unification Church, Scientology and others.


The dynamics of the apostates’ groups in Europe especially developed at the time of massacres and collective suicides perpetrated within some marginal religious groups in the 1990s on the American and European continents. They found allies in the media, who were looking for “juicy” stories, and they quite often fed them with unfounded accusations, distorted information and fabricated cases, creating hereby a climate of social anxiety and hostility. The word “cult”, systematically attributed to new religious or belief movements, became a signal of distrust, threat and danger. Many European governments surfed on this media wave of stigmatization, demonization and hostility. Intolerance and discrimination followed and continue to this day, in particular through their so-called “cult observatories” in some countries.


This climate of intolerance was clearly denounced by USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) in its recent report (24 July 2023) titled “Religious Freedom Concerns about Religious Freedom in the European Union” in which a section was devoted to the anti-cult issue and was stressing that “Several governments in the EU have supported or facilitated the propagation of harmful information about certain religious groups.”


The context of Taiwan’s religious tolerance


Taiwan does not a have dominant religion, unlike most European countries, as a survey by the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology released in 2021 shows.

27.9 percent of the population exclusively practices traditional folk religions, 19.8 percent Buddhism, and 18.7 percent Taoism, with 23.9 percent identifying as nonbelievers.  The rest of the population consists mainly of Protestants (5.5 percent), I-Kuan Tao (2.2 percent), Catholics (1.4 percent).

Members of other religious groups include Jews, Sunni Muslims, the Baha’i Faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mahikari, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

Some studies find that as many as 80 percent of religious practitioners combine multiple faith traditions. The concept of heresy or normative religious orthodoxy is therefore not prevalent.

As of the end of 2019, there were more than 15,000 registered religious groups representing over 20 religions.


Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons or Scientologists, just to name a few, are “unloved” religious movements in Europe where they are the targets of derogatory statements, defamatory campaigns, distorted news and false information. In the late 1990s, France and Belgium had respectively investigated 172 and 187 religious or belief movements suspected of being dangerous or harmful cults. Both countries still have a very active state cult observatory allegedly monitoring their activities and publishing controversial reports that have been successfully challenged in courts.


In Taiwan, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Mahikari followers, Unification Church members or Scientologists for example are treated on an equal footing with other religious groups and without any prejudice or suspicion. They have been welcome after 40 years of a dictatorial regime in the second half of last century.


Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 21st century democratic Taiwan

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taiwan have never experienced any difficulty with their usual religious activities as a group in the 21st century.

Proselytizing in the public space has never been a source of serious complaint and has never involved police intervention.

They have seldom faced any opposition by the local authorities or the local population when applying for permission to build or rent a place for worship.

As in any other country Jehovah’s Witnesses do not participate in elections, which is their way of remaining politically neutral while respecting their government.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are conscientious objectors to military service. In 2000, Taiwan introduced an alternative military service and was hereby the first country in Asia to take such an initiative. Out of 699 candidates opting for this status at that time, 634 were Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Concerning their refusal of blood transfusion, they proceed as in other countries. In Taiwan, they have set up five Hospital Liaison Committees (HLC) which are now functioning. After discussions, they always find doctors and hospitals willing to treat them without blood transfusions. There are more and more cooperative doctors, they say, and there were only very few cases to be dealt with in conformity with their beliefs at it can be seen from the few examples hereafter.

In 2019 a 19-year-old Jehovah’s Witness was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). The surgeon respected the will of the family about blood transfusion and the patient successfully performed his chemotherapy. Four years later he continues to be in remission. This was the first time in Taiwan that a patient with ALL was treated without blood transfusion. The attending physician published a report regarding this landmark case and regularly lectures at international medical seminars about how to treat patients with ALL without blood transfusions.


A seven-year-old girl was involved in a vehicle accident which resulted in severe head trauma and cranial bleeding. The father who is a Jehovah’s Witness requested the assistance of a representative of the local Hospital Liaison Committee of Jehovah’s Witnesses (HLC) to consult with the physician about treatment options that could be used instead of a blood transfusion. The doctor successfully operated on the patient.


In another case, a young female Jehovah’s Witness was diagnosed with a large spinal tumor (Ewing’s Sarcoma). She accepted the proposed surgery and chemotherapy, but without blood transfusion. The surgeon performed the operation without the usual blood transfusion and with hardly half of the usual blood loss.


No anti-cult activity has targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taiwan and religious tolerance fares all the better.

Taipei Taiwan Mormon Temple opened in 1984 (Credit: HRWF)

Opening event of the Church of Scientology in Kaohsiung in 2013 (Taiwan)


Further reading about FORB in Taiwan on HRWF website

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EUROPEAN UNION: The EU and transitional justice for ending impunity

The EU and transitional justice

Speech delivered on 28 July 2023 at a conference about Transitional Justice at the National 228 Memorial Museum

By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (02.08.2023) – Ending impunity for serious crimes against human rights and humanitarian norms is an important EU and UN objective. It is essential in overcoming the legacy of past conflicts and in building the basis of stable, peaceful societies, as shown by the experience of societies that have taken the democratic path in recent decades.

Historical background

The field of transitional justice emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to the political transitions that took place during that time in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The implementation of transitional justice measures depended on the national context, varying greatly, e.g. among former communist regimes. Today, the focus of transitional justice mechanisms has moved to countries afflicted by conflicts in Africa and Asia.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002, aims to complement national systems where these are unable to bring to justice for serious crimes those in the highest positions of responsibility.

Transitional justice aims both at holding those responsible for serious crimes to account, at providing redress to victims, as well as at building fairer and resilient justice systems able to secure reconciliation and the transition to democracy. It includes several measures:

Prosecution of leaders and high officials of former regimes: Communist leaders in some eastern European countries and leaders of military juntas in Latin America faced justice in their countries: in Argentina (with a verdict in 1985) or in Guatemala where the verdict was finally invalidated in 2013 .

In other cases, former president of Serbia died before his conviction and former president of Côte d’Ivoire was acquitted after standing trial in international tribunals.

Prosecution took place independently of rank, of perpetrators of grave crimes, particularly genocide: Rwanda. (1994).

Lustration policies included vetting procedure before holding public office. These were central to the efforts of former communist countries in Europe (such as Germany, Czechia and Estonia), in overcoming their past and building stable democracies, but they were not free of judicial controversy regarding the concordance of lustration laws with human rights.

Truth initiatives ranged from the opening of secret services archives (as in former communist countries) to the Truth Commission in South Africa, (1995), while in Cambodia in 1995, a NGO assumed the task of preserving the memory of genocide.

Rehabilitation and redress for those convicted on political grounds or for persecuted groups.

Amnesty: This is the most controversial approach to transitional justice, as it precludes justice for victims, but it can be instrumental in ending bloody conflict. However, amnesty cannot apply in serious crimes against humanity and other similar crimes, as made clear in a number of landmark decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In Latin America, amnesty was granted broadly to allow transition, but amnesty laws were later struck down for grave crimes in Argentina (2003), Guatemala (1996) or Peru (2019), although not in Brazil.

European Union action

The EU is an important player in the field of transitional justice. It has developed a comprehensive approach to help non-EU countries implement transitional justice.

Closing the accountability gap, fighting impunity and supporting transitional justice is among the priorities of the EU action plan on human rights and democracy for 2020-2024.

An EU policy framework on support to transitional justice provides guidance for both EU institutions and Member States, based on the main UN elements :

  • in terms of criminal justice: the EU supports

the reform of national criminal legislation and alternative ways (mediation or traditional courts) to provide justice;

  • in terms of search for truth: the EU promotes truth-seeking initiatives based on international law and best practice;
  • in terms of reparations: the EU encourages a participatory, victim-focused approach to reparations;
  • in terms of guarantees of non-recurrence/institutional reform:

The EU opposes amnesties for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide or gross violations of human rights, in line with the UN position.

The EU supports the ICC; it helps countries in situations of fragility and provides financial support for transitional justice initiatives and related issues.

The EU has put in place multiannual funding programs with partner countries including Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Rwanda, South Sudan and The Gambia.

European Parliament position

The European Parliament has repeatedly underlined the need to put an end to impunity for grave crimes under international law.

In a March 2019 resolution on building EU capacity on conflict prevention and mediation, the Parliament declared that a pool of experts covering reconciliation and transitional justice was needed at EU level.

In another resolution in January 2021, the  Parliament proposed to establish an EU Special Representative on International Humanitarian Law and International Justice and underlined the need to ensure justice for all victims of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

A recent resolution in February 2022 called for the promotion of transitional justice processes empowering civil society, victims, marginalised and vulnerable populations, increasing the role of women and young people in transitional justice.

Transitional justice measures do not only address past atrocities but they are also forward-looking.

As the armed conflict in Ukraine is ongoing and atrocities continue to be committed systematically, it is important to keep documenting the human rights violations perpetrated by Russia, the aggressor country, not only for accountability purposes, but also to know the truth of what happened and help determine the type and form of reparations.

If there is a peace agreement, the inclusion of transitional justice issues will be important but there may not be any negotiations and any peace agreement as in the case on the Korean Peninsula 60 years ago. In such a case of a stuck or frozen conflict, Europol, Interpol and the International Criminal Court will have to unite their efforts to hunt and prosecute Russian war criminals until the last one as long as they will be alive as it happened to the Nazi criminals of World War II.

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TAIWAN: Interview with Pusin Tali, Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom

Taiwanese Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, Mr Pusin Tali

TAIWAN: Interview with Pusin Tali, Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom

From an indigenous group to the top of the hierarchy of the state

By Zsuzsa-Anna Ferenczy from Taipei for Human Rights Without Frontiers

Q: In 2019 President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen offered you the opportunity to be Taiwan’s first ever Ambassador for Freedom of Religion or Belief of Taiwan, which you accepted. But first, before you talk about your role, tell us about your personal and professional trajectory prior to being considered for this position.

A: I am a member of the Atayal indigenous group and a Christian in Taiwan, also representing the 5th generation of Christians in my family. I was born and raised in Hsinchu and grew up with a deep love for nature, often spending time in the mountains. As a child, I believed that this was the only education one needed. Regarding my formal education, I initially thought that it would disrupt our traditions and weaken our connection with the environment.

After completing elementary school, I joined the Mustard Seed Mission, a private school in Hualien that welcomed indigenous teenagers. It was during this educational journey that I realized how Christian education could assist me and my community in strengthening our indigenous cultural identity and fostering a sense of belonging. With this in mind, I dedicated myself to studying at Yu-Shan Theological College and Seminary in Hualien, Taiwan, where I pursued theological education for seven years with unwavering determination. Ultimately, I fulfilled my ambition of becoming a pastor.

Q: Was this the moment you decided to become a pastor?

A: I knew I wanted to become a pastor and, therefore, pursued higher theological studies. I served as a pastor in the Nahuy Church of the Tayal Presbytery in Hsinchu for about 10 years. During this phase, which occurred when I was in my 30s, I continued my Master of Theology at Tainan Theological College and Seminary. After graduating, I began teaching at Yu-Shan Theological College and Seminary and later pursued a doctoral degree in theology at the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology. In 1998, I spent a year doing further studies at the Pacific School of Religion in the United States.

Since 1992, I have been teaching at Yu-Shan Theological College and Seminary. In 2002, I became the dean of the Seminary. I served as the dean for the following 21 years, making me the longest-serving dean in the history of the Seminary. Additionally, in 2012, I was elected as the Moderator of the 57th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, which provided me with the opportunity to connect with global religious leaders and participate in international cooperation. This experience has been particularly valuable to me as an indigenous Taiwanese person.

Q: Tell us about the moment you were asked to become FORB Ambassador?

A: In my 17th year as the dean of Yu-Shan Theological College and Seminary in 2019, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan approached me and proposed that I become the first Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom of Taiwan. I believe that this opportunity was closely linked to my activities as the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, which provided me with significant international exposure and made me a suitable candidate for the ambassadorship. As the Moderator, I had connections and exchanges with the Christian Conference in Asia and the World Council of Churches, establishing numerous contacts. As an Ambassador, I am able to contribute to the world with the values of religious freedom in Taiwan and portray Taiwan as a country that upholds religious freedom.

Q: What were the reasons that inspired President Tsai to reach out to you and ask you to focus on freedom of religion in your opinion?

A: Beyond the religious work in which I was deeply involved, I recognized that this position provided an opportunity to engage not only in religious freedom but also in the realms of human rights and democracy. These two interconnected values hold great significance for the President, for Taiwan, and myself, both as a pastor and as an indigenous Taiwanese. President Tsai Ing-wen has emphasized to me on multiple occasions the importance of showcasing Taiwan’s commitment to religious freedom, democracy, and human rights on the global stage. She firmly believes in the universality of human rights, and by establishing this position, she aimed to communicate that Taiwan upholds and promotes universal values.

Q: Tell us a little more about your activities as an Ambassador? What kind of challenges have you faced and can you also name some achievements?

A: My mandate as Ambassador lasts until the 2024 presidential elections; we will have to see what happens after the elections. Concerning Taiwan, it is a diverse society, with several different religious communities coexisting. At the same time, certain religious groups have faced challenges over the years when practicing their faith. Taiwan has over half a million foreign migrant workers from Southeast Asia, who adhere to religions such as Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity, among others. Some members of their communities often complain that they are unable to attend religious services on weekends due to work obligations. I have raised this issue with the government, and they have taken steps to address it through legal amendments by the Ministry of Labor (Taiwan), aiming to improve the protection of religious freedom. These efforts have allowed foreign workers to practice their religious beliefs and have received proper attention. However, this remains an ongoing issue that requires continued attention in Taiwan.

Q: Taiwan can pride itself for having a strong record in freedom of religion. Have there been attempts from China, a country where fundamental values face serious threats in particular freedom of religion, to influence Taiwan through religion?

A: For decades China has been trying to use religion to infiltrate Taiwan, to use it as a tool to influence people’s minds, the political system, overall to undermine democracy. As Ambassador, I have expressed my strong stance on this: no one, not China, or any other country or entity should be allowed to use religion to undermine Taiwan. President Tsai has been very clear on this herself, while she is also supportive of dialogue and peace, of course. But dialogue should not come at the expense of our sovereignty or freedom.

Q: Any other challenges related to freedom of religion inside Taiwan?

A: There is also a tax law issue in Taiwan. In principle, religion is tax exempt in Taiwan, and religious institutions are not allowed to profit from their religious activities. However, due to the unclear and ambiguous nature of the law, activities that count as charitable work were taxed in the past, according to the law. Tai Ji Men, a religious group in Taiwan, has also faced similar problems. In my capacity as an ambassador, I have made efforts to understand the legal challenges faced by this issue and have voiced support for ensuring religious freedom in Taiwan. After a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2007, it was determined that Tai Ji Men did not violate tax regulations and their innocence was finally restored. Therefore, donations related to religious activities, if used for charitable purposes, are no longer to be considered as income and are not subject to taxation. However, we must emphasize the importance of religion in terms of democratic human rights, as well as its contribution to a society of peace, harmony, and social justice.

Q: What is the significance of that decision in your view?

A: I firmly believe that this decision is also a commitment to aligning with and fulfilling the obligations of international religious freedom. Domestically, it creates more transparency, which is important for Taiwan’s democracy going forward. Internationally, it is also important because it sends a message to those organization that are interested in coming to Taiwan and conducting charity work or other similar activities, that they will face no tax problems. So, overall, I consider this decision quite positive.

Q: In closing, any highlights you might wish to share with us concerning your work as an advocate for freedom of religion in Taiwan?

A: As an indigenous Taiwanese, I firmly believe that safeguarding religious freedom in Taiwan goes hand in hand with protecting and promoting democratic human rights. In other words, these aspects are interconnected, and without religious freedom, there can be no democratic human rights in the country. This is also a crucial foundation for upholding the rights of indigenous peoples in Taiwan. It is the driving force behind my role as an ambassador and holds great significance as a Christian. It was beyond my imagination when I was young that one day I could have this opportunity and privilege to pursue freedom of religion for the people of Taiwan. Taiwan might be only a small member of the international community, but it is strong, and this strength stems from its belief in values and fundamental freedoms. Lastly, and most importantly, as Taiwan’s Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, it is a great responsibility to establish a common homeland for religions in the global promotion of freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Q: Thank you for your time and for sharing with our readers your experience. Through your work, you let us see a side of Taiwan that is little known to the outside world.


Zsuzsa Anna FERENCZY Ph.D.

Associated Research Fellow, Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP)

Head of Associates Network, 9DASHLINE

Affiliated Scholar, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)

Assistant Professor, National Dong-Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan

Consultant, Human Rights Without Frontiers, Brussels

email: zsuzsaaferenczy@gmail.com

twitter: @zsuzsettte


(*) Footnote by Willy Fautré

In April, I had the honor and the pleasure to meet Ambassador at Large Pusin Tali in Taiwan. During our discussions, I was impressed by his humility and his life trajectory. Having no time to interview him because of a busy schedule, I asked Dr Zsuzsa-Anna Ferenczy currently living in Taipei to meet him and interview him for Human Rights Without Frontiers. I warmly thank her for her precious contribution highlighting the opportunities of social advancement in Taiwan and reflecting the image of a country open to religious diversity.

Further reading about FORB in Taiwan on HRWF website

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TAIWAN: China’s infiltration strategy into Taiwan’s religious organizations

TAIWAN: China’s infiltration strategy into Taiwan’s religious organizations

By Zsuzsa-Anna Ferenczy reporting from Taiwan for Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (02.06.2023) – The complexity of the relationship between Taiwan (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has impacted both their shared religious and cultural traditions, and their divergent political paths in particular following Taiwan’s democratization.


With Taiwan developing a distinct political identity over the past three decades, distancing itself from the PRC by being rooted in democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the Chinese leadership has gradually strengthened efforts to pull Taiwan closer. Chinese economic statecraft over the decades has included both positive and negative statecraft, with Beijing using economic tools to achieve political goals. Beijing has sought to cultivate a group of collaborators whose interests would be permanently linked to China’s growing prosperity.


The Chinese state has also targeted civil society, including faith communities, with Taiwanese leaders and faith communities becoming the main targets of China’s influence campaigns for political ends.


At the same time, the effectiveness of these methods remains questioned by many. Taiwan has become a robust democracy with a consolidated identity, regarded as a like-minded partner by democracies across the globe. As a result of the growing threat from China, the people of Taiwan have not shown more interest in the PRC, on the contrary, debates have intensified on how to diversify away from China.


Taiwan remains a polarized society, with divergent views and heated debates on public affairs. External influence attempts remain an important tool for Beijing to seek to shape the public sentiment in Taiwan on China, to influence the political thinking and debate across the island. This has included the spread of disinformation, or information manipulation in order to undermine the government and the trust of the people in their government and to interfere in any way possible that serves their interest. This has affected cultural and religious affairs and continues to do so to this day.


Over the decades, there have been robust exchanges between the temples and religious organizations of China and Taiwan. Religious exchanges also served as a platform for cross-strait interaction. As such, pilgrimages for Mazu ceremonies (the sea goddess of Mazu) to the Mazu Ancestral Temple on Meizhou Island in China attracted many believers, including Taiwanese. In fact, according to some, Meizhou emerged as a mecca for Taiwan’s believers. The local government of Meizhou Island has shaped the religious community, appointing officials as leaders. Therefore, experts claim that the Mazu Ancestral Temple’s board of trustees continues to further its role as the state’s facilitator in cross-strait relations. In fact, in 2006, the PRC legalized the Chinese Mazu Cultural Exchange Association, which included representatives from Taiwan’s temples, becoming a channel to build personal connections with PRC officials.


According to research, there have been attempts of infiltration by Chinese state-backed entities inside Taiwan in particular targeting traditional folk religions. With the management of temples in the hands of local community leaders, Taiwan’s democratization allowed them to gain greater political space – which Beijing has sought to exploit. Religious leaders were keen on exchanges with their Chinese counterparts; since the 1980s Taiwan’s temples have organized tours for worshippers to visits places in China from which their deities originated. Reports show that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used brokers to fund the construction of small temples, or that members of pro-CCP groups acted as administrators of local temples.


Considering this threat from the perspective of cognitive warfare, such infiltration allows the CCP to spread its messages across the local community, and to change political attitudes. Interpersonal relationships are particularly valuable for the CCP to help disseminate propaganda. The reality is that the way China’s infiltration works through religious exchanges has an impact on political debates across Taiwan, therefore on Taiwan’s politics. This poses a significant challenge for the authorities in Taiwan, committed to freedom of religion and non-interference in the religious affairs across the island, in sharp contrast to the PRC’s denial of essentially all fundamental political freedoms – not just religious freedom. Going forward, it is clear that transparency must remain at the core of any legislation concerning the management of religious affairs in Taiwan, in line with its strong commitment to this principle.


Zsuzsa-Anna Ferenczy, Ph D.

Associated Research Fellow, Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP)

Head of Associates Network, 9DASHLINE

Affiliated Scholar, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)

Assistant Professor, National Dong-Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan

Further reading about FORB in Taiwan on HRWF website

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