By Congressman Chris Smith
Mihrigul Tursun said she pleaded with God to end her life as her Chinese jailers increased the electrical currents coursing through her body. Tursun, a Muslim Uighur whose escape led her to the United States in September, broke down weeping at a Nov. 28 congressional hearing as she recounted her experience in one of China’s infamous political “ re-education centers.”
It is an appalling story but one that is all too familiar as existential threats to religious freedom rise in President Xi Jinping’s China. The world can’t ignore what’s happening there. We must all stand up and oppose these human rights violations.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has undertaken the most comprehensive attempt to manipulate and control — or destroy — religious communities since Chairman Mao Zedong made the eradication of religion a goal of his disastrous Cultural Revolution half a century ago. Now Xi, apparently fearing the power of independent religious belief as a challenge the Communist Party’s legitimacy, is trying to radically transform religion into the party’s servant, employing a draconian policy known as sinicization.
Under sinicization, all religions and believers must comport with and aggressively promote communist ideology — or else.
To drive home the point, religious believers of every persuasion are harassed, arrested, jailed or tortured. Only the compliant are left relatively unscathed.
Bibles are burned, churches destroyed, crosses set ablaze atop church steeples and now, under Xi, religious leaders are required to install facial-recognition cameras in their places of worship. New regulations expand restrictions on religious expression online and prohibit those under age 18 from attending services.
Government officials are also reportedly rewriting religious texts — including the Bible — that remove content unwanted by the atheist Communist Party, and have launched a five-year sinicization plan for Chinese Protestant Christians.
These efforts have taken a staggering human toll. In recent months, more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region have been detained, tortured and forced to renounce their faith. The U.S. government is investigating recent reports that ethnic minorities in internment camps are being forced to produce goods bound for the United States.
Yet, despite this anti-religion campaign, the Vatican has shown a disturbing lack of alarm concerning these threats and, instead, appears to be seeking a form of accommodation. In September, Vatican officials signed a “provisional agreement” that essentially ceded to the Chinese government the power to choose — subject to papal review — every candidate for bishop in China, which has an estimated 10 million to 12 million Catholics.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a retired bishop of Hong Kong, in September called the deal “a complete surrender” by the Vatican and an “incredible betrayal” of the faith.
At a congressional hearing I chaired in September, Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, testified that the government-controlled body charged with carrying out the policy, the Catholic Patriotic Association, had drafted an implementation document containing the following passage: “The Church will regard promotion and education on core values of socialism as a basic requirement for adhering to the Sinicization of Catholicism. It will guide clerics and Catholics to foster and maintain correct views on history and the nation.”
One can hope that Beijing has made concessions to the church that have yet to be revealed. Initial reports are less than promising. Since the agreement was reached, underground priests have been detained, Marian shrines destroyed, pilgrimage sites closed, youth programs shuttered, and priests required to attend reeducation sessions in at least one province.
The Vatican should reconsider its arrangement with the Chinese government. But what can be done more generally in response to Xi’s war on religion? The United States and several European countries have condemned it, but any nation that values freedom of religion should unite in denouncing China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners. In particular, Muslim-majority countries, strangely muted regarding the persecution of Muslim Uighurs, must protest these abuses even at the risk of endangering the benefits from China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure projects.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and I have urged the Trump administration to use Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to target Chinese officials responsible for egregious human rights abuses. We have sought expanded export controls for police surveillance products and sanctions against businesses profiting from the forced labor or detention of Uighurs. We have also introduced the bipartisan Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2018 to provide the administration with new tools to comprehensively address the abuse.
The United States must lead the way in letting the Chinese Communist Party know that taking a hammer and sickle to the cross and enslaving more than 1 million Uighurs in an effort to erase their religion and culture are destructive, shameful acts that will not be tolerated by the community of nations.