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The People of Asia


Islam is the dominant religion in most countries of Southwest Asia and in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Large minorities of Muslims are also found elsewhere in Asia. Non-Muslims in Southwest Asia include Jews in Israel and Christians in Lebanon.

Hinduism is the chief religion of India and on the island of Java in Indonesia. Buddhism, which originated in northeastern India, has only a few adherents there but is now one of the principal religions of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

Buddhism was also strong in North Korea before 1948 and in Mongolia before 1929 when their Communist governments began partially suppressing religion. Although in 1992 Mongolia shifted to a democratic government that allows greater religious freedom, most Mongolians are now either nonreligious or atheists. Confucianism, which is more a social and moral code than a religion, developed in China but has been largely suppressed by the Communist government. Since the beginning of economic reforms in the 1980s, China has had increased contact with outsiders and religious and Confucian practices have also increased. Buddhist practices continued in Vietnam despite government efforts to suppress them during the 1970s and 1980s; most restrictions have since been lifted.

Japan has a native religion called Shinto. Shinto, which has been mixed with many practices of Buddhism, centers on the worship of ancestors and natural spirits. The religion formerly accepted the divinity of the Japanese emperor, but this aspect of Shinto was abandoned after the Japanese defeat in World War II (1939-1945).

Christianity, as represented by the Russian Orthodox Church, was the principal religion of Russia prior to the 1922 founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which dissolved in 1991. For most of its existence, the USSR’s Communist government discouraged religious practices. In 1990, however, the government lifted restrictions on religious worship and the Russian Orthodox Church reemerged as the major Christian denomination.

Roman Catholic missionaries carried Christianity to the Philippines. Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries also converted many people in Korea, Japan, India, and among the hill peoples of Myanmar.

Many groups living in remote areas of the Asian continent, such as the Karen and Shan in Myanmar, practice religions unique to their cultures. These religions can be complex, often involving practices of animism, the belief that every object has a spirit.

Religious conflicts simmer throughout Asia and add to regional insecurity. In the Middle East, peace agreements in the 1990s helped lessen the dispute between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In the mid-1990s Afghanistan was enmeshed in a civil war between fundamentalist Muslims backed by Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Arab states, and more moderate Muslims supported by Iran, Russia, India, and Tajikistan. India and Pakistan wrestle over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, commonly known as Kashmir. India claims Kashmir on historical grounds, whereas Pakistan believes Kashmir’s Muslim population should be in an Islamic state. In Southeast Asia, the Muslim Moro people of Mindanao Island in the Philippines have long fought with the government, arguing for greater autonomy and closer links with fellow Muslims of Malaysia’s Sabah state. Although the largest rebel group and the government negotiated a peace agreement that created a Muslim autonomous region in 1996, other rebels have continued fighting. Even with the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia finds the strongly Islamic residents of Aceh at the northern end of Sumatra a source of political tensions.

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