As the United States celebrated freedom of religion or belief, scholars and activists issued a powerful reminder that it is not being granted to Tai Ji Men.
by Alessandro Amicarelli
Since 1993, the Unites States celebrate National Religious Freedom Day on January 16, a date commemorating the adoption on January 16, 1766, by the Virginia General Assembly of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson. On January 16, 2022, Action Alliance to Redress 1219, the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), and Human Rights Without Frontiers celebrated the date through a webinar on “U.S. National Religious Freedom Day and the Tai Ji Men Case.”
The webinar was introduced by Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter. He noted that the United Nations have consistently interpreted “religious freedom” in a broad sense. Treaty bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by its State parties have issued authoritative comments to the provisions of international treaties.
In 1993, Introvigne said, the United Nations Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment No. 22 to art. 18 of ICCPR, which deals with freedom of religion or belief (FORB). Section 2 of General Comment no. 22 states that, “Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility.”
In the Tai Ji Men case, Introvigne commented, certain Taiwanese authorities have answered letters from abroad by claiming that Tai Ji Men is not registered as a religious group, and therefore its case cannot be one of freedom of religion or belief. This is factually false, Introvigne said, since when Tai Ji Men was incorporated, in 1966, the government did not allow religious or spiritual groups part of a larger tradition to register individually, and Tai Ji Men was registered as part of the Taoist Association of the Republic of China.
But at any rate, Introvigne said, whether or not Tai Ji Men is registered as a religious entity is not really important. Taiwan has made the ICCPR part of its domestic law, Introvigne argued, and cannot ignore that according to the United Nations to be protected under Article 18 being registered as a religion is not necessary. Even atheism is protected, which certainly is not registered as a religion anywhere. Nor is it necessary for being protected under Article 18, Introvigne added, that a group asks its members to convert to a specific religion. International courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, have repeatedly stated, for example, that the Church of Scientology deserves FORB protection even if devotees can remain members of their old religion and join Scientology at the same time.
Introvigne then introduced a video message for the U.S. National Religious Freedom Day of Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the leader of Tai Ji Men, which reminded the audience of the American origins of the modern notion of religious liberty later enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr. Hong identified conscience as the basis of religious liberty. He congratulated the United States for their global efforts on behalf of FORB, and expressed his hope that countries and citizens throughout the world may join this righteous campaign.
Two other videos respectively summarized the Tai Ji Men case, on the basis of a side event at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom or Belief 2020, and featured praise and positive assessments of Tai Ji Men’s activities by authorities from the largest world religions, both in Taiwan and internationally.
Introvigne then presented the different speakers and testimonies. Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, noted that while the principles governing FORB are clear in international declarations and treaties, some states still try to violate and circumvent them. This is also true for democratic states, which often try to discriminate against religious minorities by using taxes. France was sentenced repeatedly for this violation of FORB by the European Court of Human Rights, Fautré said, and the same happened to the Quebec tax authorities in a recent case involving a Taoist Tai Chi Institute. Currently, Fautré concluded, the worst case internationally of using taxes as a tool to discriminate against a spiritual minority is the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan. It needs to be resolved without delay.
Pusin Tali, Taiwan’s first and current ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, praised the United States for their religious freedom initiatives, which inspired the creation of his position in Taiwan. He said it is natural that he also takes an interest in Taiwan’s domestic FORB issues, and he is concerned that Taiwanese financial authorities and National Taxation Bureau have “crossed a line on human rights and freedom” in the Tai Ji Men case. He noted that, since the Supreme Court has declared Tai Ji Men not guilty of any crime, including tax evasion, the financial and tax authorities should follow that verdict.
Stephen Enada, Executive President of the International Committee on Nigeria, said that he was deeply inspired by the Tai Ji Men dizi effective advocacy for FORB for his own battle for religious liberty in Nigeria. He vowed to spread awareness of the Tai Ji Men case internationally, including in Africa.
Ashley Lwin, a Chinese-Burmese American activist who works on behalf of human rights in Myanmar, told the sad story of how the military in that country killed at least 5,000 citizens who were peacefully protesting for democracy in the last 12 months only. She reported how she met Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples) at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington DC, strongly related with their commitment to FORB, and decided to offer her solidarity to their fight to put an end to what she called “a fabricated case.”
Andy Swarna, founder of Great Truth, hailed freedom of religion or belief as an essential tool for conflict resolution, and an inalienable and indeed a main part of universal human rights. He noted that the principle was clearly violated in the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan, despite the clear indications by the Supreme Court. Swarna expressed his hope that Tai Ji Men may continue their valuable activities free of political challenge.
Introvigne then introduced a video with Tai Ji Men’s beautiful “Dance of Love and Peace,” combining qigong, martial arts, and artistic performance, and six Tai Ji Men dizi who shared their testimonies.
Hsia Lung Ogle, a retired English teacher from Florida, told the tragic story of her family, who moved from Vietnam to Cambodia to escape civil war, only to find itself in the middle of the Khmer Rouge’s persecution. Since they were Christians, all her family members were exterminated. She survived because she had been sent to study in Taiwan, where she met Tai Ji Men, which helped her make sense of her experience. She then moved to Florida, and continues to be part there of a Presbyterian Church, while practicing qigong and self-cultivation as a Tai Ji Men dizi. Her life experience, she said, taught her the value of freedom of religion or belief, and how it was consistently violated in the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan.
Polly Han, who works as a customs brokerage supervisor in a Los Angeles company, reported how the Tai Ji Men academy in Los Angeles became a home away from home for her family of Taiwanese immigrants. She then participated in several Tai Ji Men cultural events, and in December 2021 traveled to Washington DC to attend the first international press conference on the Tai Ji Men case, and protest in front of the TECRO, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office. She now wonders where and how the cry of distress of Tai Ji Men dizi will be finally heard by the authorities in Taiwan.
Jimmy Wang, who created its own company in 1994, one year after he joined Tai Ji Men, asked the audience to pay attention to what at first may seem an unlikely witness for FORB: the American dollar. Yet, in the American banknotes one can read the motto “In God We Trust,” and the one-dollar banknote even shows the eye of God watching on humans from the top of a pyramid. This, Wang said, shows the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and trust, and the need for governments that want to succeed to be trusted by their citizens, which he illustrated with the story of the first Imperial dynasty in China, the Qin. With the injustices perpetrated in the Tai Ji Men case, Wang noted, Taiwan’s government may lose the trust of its own citizens, which can only flourish when FORB is granted and protected.
Chris Tsai, a software engineer from the Bay Area in California, told the story of how the tax system, which was regarded as very fair in the Roman Republic, became corrupted when the Roman Empire entrusted the tax collection to private tax farmers called publicani, who kept huge bonuses on the tax bills they collected. The same kind of abuse and corruption through bonuses is now at work in Taiwan, Tsai insisted, and even infringes on freedom of religion or belief as the Tai Ji Men case demonstrates.
Cici Han, who works as design director in a Los Angeles company and trains as an architect, told how she started practicing qigong at age 13. Her first aim was improving her health, as she was suffering from severe allergy and dermatitis. Then she understood that physical health is part of a larger picture, and that self-cultivation and conscience are the bases both for individual peace of mind and world peace and freedom. Despite being very busy with her work and study, she managed to accompany Dr. Hong to the United Nations and to Kiribati to promote universal peace and love through the ringing of the Tai Ji Men Bell of World Peace and Love. These activities, she said, have been highly praised by Taiwanese authorities, including current President Tsai Ing-Wen, which is totally inconsistent with the persecution of Tai Ji Men by the tax authorities there. She concluded by reminding the audience that in the U.S. the day after National Religious Freedom Day is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and King’s motto that even when justice seems to be defeated it may still prevail in the long run offers hope to the Tai Ji Men dizi.
Jenny Hsiung, a schoolteacher in Palo Alto, California, shared the story of her parents. Her mother came from a poor family who had to move from place to place to avoid Japanese bombings in Taiwan. His father served in the Nationalist Army in Mainland China, and fled to Taiwan after the Nationalists were defeated in the Civil War. They were poor, but found solace in religious rituals and temple attendance, which made her understand the importance of religious freedom. Jenny found her way in Tai Ji Men, and moved to a satisfying career in California. Yet, even in the United States, echoes of the unjust persecution in Taiwan greatly affect Tai Ji Men dizi and disrupt their normal activities. She quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., who stated that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” thanking those international scholars and activists who take an interest in the Tai Ji Men case, and stating that Tai Ji Men dizi also support others who struggle throughout the world to see their FORB recognized.
Introvigne concluded the webinar by stating that there are different dimensions of FORB: the right to organize as each religious or spiritual organization deems fit; the right to publicize freely beliefs and practices; the right to be free from administrative harassment, including through taxes imposed on activities that should be tax-free; the right to freely own and operate places of worship; and the right to travel internationally without obstacles for spiritual purposes. In the case of Tai Ji Men, Introvigne said, all these dimensions of FORB were violated. Tai Ji Men academies were raided, leaders were imprisoned, their activities were disrupted, unjust tax bills were imposed, sacred land intended for the construction of a self-cultivation center was seized, auctioned off, and confiscated. After the Supreme Court of Taiwan acquitted Dr. Hong of all charges in 2007, the National Taxation Bureau still imposed travel bans on him until March 2014.
The event concluded with videos featuring preventive measures for COVID-19 recommended by Tai Ji Men, and the song “Love of the World,” which was created by Dr. Hong, was officially published on New Year’s Eve 1999, and became internationally popular thanks to an agreement with the BBC. The video also showed chiefs of state and other international authorities ringing the Tai Ji Men Bell of World Peace and Love.