Many immigrants carry religious baggage
Canada offers a haven for those fleeing intolerance, rivalries and oppressive state control of their faith, a new survey shows
By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun - September 29, 2012
When it comes to government clampdowns on Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or atheists, Canadians enjoy relative freedom.
But for millions of immigrants to Canada. old-country memories are seared with harrowing rivalries over religion, often combined with oppressive state control of faith.
A new survey of almost 200 countries by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has discovered religious troubles are rising - to the point that three-quarters of the world's population (seven billion people) now endure high government restrictions or social hostilities related to faith.
A close look at the Pew Forum survey reveals the countries that supply the largest numbers of immigrants to Canada are among those racked by religious strife and repression.
China and India are under-going great collisions over religion. So, to a lesser extent, have the Philippines and Britain.
How might coming from countries rife with religious battles and repression affect the attitudes of new Canadians?
I sought answers from Brian Grim, primary researcher for the Pew Forum's fourth report on religious freedom, which found "the share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religion rose from 31 per cent in mid-2009 to 37 per cent in the year ending in mid-2010."
Here is what has been happening in the four countries that have for years been sup-plying the most immigrants to Canada, with reflections on how homeland tensions might influence newcomers:
Mainland China, which has one-party rule, is among the most repressive countries on Earth when it comes to religion.
The Pew Forum ranks China as "very high" with respect to government restrictions on religious practice, in the same category as notorious Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
China has "completely banned" the spiritual organization Falun Gong. The Chinese military also frequently attacks the separatist Uyghar Muslim sect. And authorities have wrought torment on Tibetan Buddhists, whose spiritual head is the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese bureaucracy, which is officially secular, approves of only a few "official" forms of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Buddhism, which are tightly controlled.
Independent forms of Catholicism, Protestantism and Buddhism operate only in the so-called underground, where members are frequently (but not consistently, depending on region) harassed or jailed.
The central government, meanwhile, tolerates informal Chinese "folk religion."
What happens when people from Mainland China move to Canada?
Canada has been allowing in more than 30,000 immigrants each year from China (roughly one-third of whom make their home in B.C., where they now comprise the largest cohort of immigrants - one out of five).
Based on his experience in China, the U.S. and Canada, Grim has found many immigrants from China don't initially practise any organized religion.
"They have a do-your-own-thing mentality," Grim says. "But over the years, many Chinese tend to become more Christian and more Buddhist than when they first arrived." Doing so can help them feel less isolated in an alien land.
In addition, a large proportion of new Chinese-Canadians will say they have no religion. But Grim has found, as I have, they are often intensely devoted, in private, to Chinese folk religion, including spiritual systems such as feng shui.
Grim experienced that first-hand when he took a tour of the city's Sun-Yat Sen Classical Chinese Gardens. That's when he realized "an awful lot of Chinese people in Vancouver were very interested in getting things all lined up properly with the gods."
Giant India is one of the most actively religious and diverse countries in the world. "Every corner has something religious on it," Grim says. But, in regions of India, it's hard to find spiritual tranquillity.
Contrary to Indian diplomats' insistence India is a model of tolerance, the Pew Forum ranks India "very high" in regard to social hostilities involving religion and "high" with respect to government restrictions.
Given age-old tensions, ugly riots still rage in which Muslims and Hindus lose their lives. Many people have also died in Sikhs' battle for a separate homeland in northern India. And, as Grim says, some regional governments have imposed laws against Christian conversions.
That said, swaths of India are bastions of multicultural acceptance.
More than 30,000 Indians arrived in Canada in 2010, making them this country's second-major source of immigrants. (Indians have for years made up about 13 per cent of all B.C. newcomers.) Grim believes Indian immigrants respond in a variety of ways to the calmer religious context in Canada. Many seek social networks by becoming active in temples and gurdwaras.
And Grim has found some hold onto the "past tensions" of their homeland, where old feuds help them shape an identity in a disorienting new land.
Leaders of this southeast Asian country, which is 90 per cent Roman Catholic, are not nearly as draconian as Chinese autocrats in the way they handle religion.
But things aren't always religiously sanguine in the island nation of 95 million people, which increasingly sends more of its citizens overseas.
Canada welcomed more than 36,000 Filipino immigrants last year, three times more than in 2006. (In B.C., Filipinos comprise more than 15 per cent of new immigrants.) Many more Filipinos, in addition, are showing up as part of Canada's growing army of temporary foreign workers.
What kind of religious culture are Filipinos leaving behind? The Philippines is rated "high" on social hostilities involving religion, while "low" on government restrictions - despite ongoing military assaults against a small group of Muslim separatists.
Grim believes most Filipino immigrants do not arrive in the U.S. or Canada bearing religious grudges. What both he and I have most noticed is how Filipinos have added an energetic and often charismatic culture to Canadian Catholic churches, many of which would have been near-empty without them.
Roughly five per cent of all immigrants to Canada (and B.C.) have in recent years been British, making them the fourth largest immigrant group.
The Pew Forum survey reveals Britons have not been enjoying as much religious freedom as Canadians. The United Kingdom is now ranked "high" for social hostilities over religion, compared to Canada's "low" and the United States' "moderate."
Sometimes bloody battles between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland continue to flare, for instance. And Grim cites the rise of white supremacist groups in England, which have been vandalizing and burning mosques.
Despite promoting religious pluralism, British governments also stand accused of over-scrutinizing Muslims in the name of security, while, officially, favouring the Anglican Church of England.
Most Britons could be summed up as people who "believe without belonging," Grim suggests.
Overtly, Britons are almost as secularized as Mainland Chinese, but many still have spiritual inclinations.
As a result, somewhat like Chinese immigrants but unlike Filipino and Indian arrivers, most Britons coming to Canada in recent years are not pre-disposed to join any religious organization, even while privately pursuing a range of spiritual enthusiasms.
In that way they are similar to the majority of Canadians.
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