US religious freedom ambassador laments widespread silence on Uyghurs

Washington D.C., Jun 11, 2019 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Islamic countries should be more vocal in criticizing China’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnoreligious group, the US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom said Monday.

“I have been disappointed that more Islamic countries have not spoken out. I know the Chinese have been threatening them and but you don’t back down to somebody that does that. That just encourages more actions,” Ambassador Sam Brownback said in an interview with The Guardian published June 10.

Brownback welcomed Turkey and “a number of western countries that have spoken out aggressively on this.”

Some 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in re-education camps for Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Inside the camps they are reportedly subjected to forced labor, torture, and political indoctrination. Outside the camps, Uyghurs are monitored by pervasive police forces and facial recognition technology.

“If China is not stopped from doing this they’re going to replicate and push this system out in their own country and to other authoritarian regimes,” Brownback commented.

He suggested that some Islamic countries “are concerned about their own human rights record and then they’re saying look: we don’t want people criticizing us [so] we’re not going to criticize somebody else.”

US diplomats have increasingly focused on China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in recent months.

The US was among the co-sponsors last week of a United Nations resolution proclaiming a day to commemorate victims of violence based on religion. While speaking at the UN June 4, Austin Smith, the US representative to the organization, called China’s treatment of the Uyghurs “one of the world’s most horrific denials of freedom of religion.”

“Chinese authorities are restricting religious freedom by labeling peaceful religious practices as manifestations of ‘religious extremism and terrorism,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited extreme hostility to all religious faiths since its founding. This repression has intensified under the current policy of ‘Sinicizing’ religion.”

China’s representative responded that Smith’s statements were an unfounded accusation, and reiterated China’s position that it is combatting extremism. He called the camps for Uyghurs learning centers, and stressed their vocational and educational nature.

In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report focused in its introduction on the abuse of Uyghurs.

During a March 8 speech in Hong Kong critical of the Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops, Brownback also addressed the detainment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in China.

He rejected Chinese government claims that the camps are vocational training centers, charging that they are “internment camps created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities.” Internment is often based on cultural or religious identity. Detention is indefinite, and internees are subjected to “physical and psychological torture, intense political indoctrination, and forced labor,” he stated.

Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, said earlier this year that “China has the right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security,” and that “Saudi Arabia respects and supports it and is willing to strengthen cooperation with China.”

Pakistan is among the few Mustlim-majority countries to have warned against the escalating persecution of the Uyghurs.

In September 2018 Noorul Haq Qadri, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony, advised Chinese Ambassador Yao Jing that Beijing’s crackdowns on Uyghur activity would only fuel extremism, rather than mitigate it.

Along with its treatment of Muslims, China has been criticized for its persecution of a variety of religious groups: Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners.

USCIRF has noted that while the Vatican reached a provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops in September, “nevertheless, repression of the underground Catholic Church increased during the latter half” of 2018.

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