Our magazine has published several articles about this Taiwanese problem. There is a reason for this.
by Daniela Bovolenta*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Dialogue, Diversity, and Freedom: Reacting to the Tai Ji Men Case,” organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on May 24, 2021.
This webinar is part of the events for the 2021 United Nations World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, which was commemorated on May 21. The day was instituted in 2002, but the process leading to the proclamation started in 2001 after the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which according to some reports was completed on May 21, 2001, although started in March.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two giant statues of the Buddha, carved into a cliff in Central Afghanistan, dating back to the sixth century CE and regarded as masterpieces of the late Gandhara Buddhist art. The tallest statue was 55 meters high (180 feet), the smallest, 38 meters (125 feet). Abdul Wali, the Taliban Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, declared the statues “Pagan idols,” and had them smashed with artillery fire and by detonating anti-tank mines.
The Taliban’s Foreign Minister told the media that, despite rumors to the contrary, the destruction was “a purely religious issue,” and was not a retaliation against foreign sanctions. The Taliban regime cannot tolerate the existence of religious minorities and cultural diversity. Destroying a visual symbol of diversity, and a famous one, was a statement that shocked the world, more powerful than any speech.
The same year 2001, Swiss historian Jean-François Mayer, one of Europe’s leading scholars of new religious movements, published an article in the Swiss daily newspaper La Liberté with a title mentioning “Les Talibans de la République,” “The Taliban of the [French] Republic.” The article was about the destruction by the police in France of a giant statue that members of a new religious movement, the Aumist religion of the Mandarom, had erected to their founder. The artistic value of the statue was obviously not comparable to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Yet, the message and visual narrative were similar: religious diversity, particularly in the shape of the groups stigmatized in France as “sectes” (cult), was not tolerated.
Bitter Winter is a magazine devoted to religious liberty and human rights. We became well-known internationally for our coverage of Mainland China, with exclusive news, videos and photos. For instance, the section on China of the yearly report of the U.S. Department of State on religious liberty released this month mentioned Bitter Winter 85 times. In 2019, Chinese authorities destroyed the largest cliff-carved statue of Guanyin in the world, in Hebei province. Although the whole area had been closed to the public by the police, one of our brave citizen reporters managed to enter and capture on video the moment the statue was destroyed. Our exclusive pictures appeared in the front page of several international daily newspapers, including in Taiwan.
From December 2020, Bitter Winter added an international section, covering religious liberty issues outside Mainland China. We cannot cover every single violation of freedom of religion or belief in the world, and mainly focus on some issues we believe to be crucial. One is the Tai Ji Men tax case in Taiwan, to which we have devoted no less than 25 articles. I am sure that some of our readers wonder why we publish so often about a case where, after all, no blood was spilled and nobody died, while the world is full of people killed because of their faith.
The world day commemorating the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan suggests the answer. No human being was killed when the Buddhas were destroyed, but history, tradition, memory, and respect for diversity were all killed on that tragic day. The Mandarom incident in France, smaller as it was, showed that the danger may also come from democratic states and “Taliban of the Republic,” intolerant of diversity for secular rather than religious reasons.
In Taiwan, we at Bitter Winter saw at work “Taliban of the National Tax Bureau,” or “Taliban of the Administrative Enforcement Agency.” They also expressed their intolerance by attacking visual symbols of freedom and diversity, land they confiscated for 23 years, 5 months and 15 days, that was intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center and other buildings they seized and then gave back to Tai Ji Men in ruins such as the Swiss Mountain Villa.
Our extensive coverage of a tax incident may seem unprecedented. But in fact, it is a 25-year long persecution of a peaceful spiritual movement, and the massive discriminatory use of taxes as a tool of discrimination, that is unprecedented in a democratic country such as Taiwan. In particular, under the protection of the law, people should enjoy freedom of expression, belief, property, etc. In the Tai Ji Men case, these freedoms were instead taken away by the government, and these persecutions caused great suffering to a great number of people. The Tai Ji Men case is internationally exemplary and important. And yes, we plan to continue our campaign about it. Our voice will not be silenced, until the voice of justice will speak and solve the case.