Religious Freedom Envoy Dismayed Islamic Countries Won’t Condemn China’s Abuse of Uighur Muslims

Patrick Goodenough | September 24, 2019 | 4:27am EDT
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( – As the Trump administration leads international condemnation of China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback expressed dismay Monday that Islamic nations in particular have not spoken out in support of their co-religionists.

Speaking in New York where President Trump hosted an unprecedented meeting at the United Nations on religious freedom, Brownback recalled that dozens of countries signed a letter over the summer praising China’s policies in its far-western province of Xinjiang.

“I’m stunned, because you’ve got a million people in concentration camps in 2019 and you’re not concerned about this?” he asked.

“And I’m concerned about a number of Islamic countries in particular that wouldn’t stand up and speak out about this,” Brownback added.

As reported in July, more than half of the 36 U.N. member-states that signed the letter praising China were members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the bloc of Islamic-majority state which is normally outspoken about actions it views as hostile towards Muslims.

Brownback recalled confronting “the head of a major Islamic group” on the issue, and telling him, “I think sometimes I care more about these people than you do.”

His response? “Well, the Chinese play rougher than you guys do.”

“China is at war with faith,” Brownback said. But, he predicted, “they will not win this war.”

On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is co-hosting an event in New York on the “human rights crisis in Xinjiang.”

According to the State Department, “China’s repression campaign includes, among other abuses, the mass detention of more than one million individuals in internment camps since April 2017.”

It said Sullivan “welcomes global partners in joining the call for China to end the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of the people of Xinjiang.”

Brownback did not name countries that would take part, but a State Department spokesman said at least 30 were expected to attend.

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last July hosted an international ministerial on religious freedom – during which he called China’s mass incarceration of Uighurs “the stain of the century” – he accused China of putting pressure on some countries to boycott the event.

Asked Monday whether China was similarly discouraging countries from attending Tuesday’s Xinjiang-focused event in New York, Brownback said he was not aware of any pressure being applied by Beijing, although he confirmed having seen cables China sent to some countries pressuring them not to attend the earlier ministerial.

Asked whether he thought other countries were reluctant to criticize China because they were afraid of economic or other retaliation, Brownback conceded it was “not a profile in courage.”

But, he said he did not think it helpful necessarily to “condemn those nations that won’t join us.”

“What I hope will get us somewhere is to point out factually what’s taking place, and to spread that as much as we can around the world to people in various countries, that they would see this is what’s happening, that they would hear the stories from Uighurs.”

‘Crosses and minarets have been replaced with hammers and sickles’

At the ministerial in July, Pompeo announced the establishment of an “International Religious Freedom Alliance.”

At Monday’s event in New York, Trump described the initiative as “an alliance of like-minded nations devoted to confronting religious persecution all around the world.”

President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the core event on religious freedom at the U.N. in New York on Monday. (Photo: State Department /Ron Przysucha)

“I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty,” he said. “We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.”

Asked at the briefing whether the alliance would be an opportunity to encourage countries to join the U.S. in imposing sanctions against China, Brownback agreed that “a broad coalition of countries imposing sanctions” was more effective than a unilateral effort.

But he also cautioned that getting countries to impose sanctions was not the specific aim of the alliance.

“Sanctions could be a piece of it if the cases [of violations] get egregious,” he said. “I would hope that would be open, but I’m not calling for this to be a sanction-making body, but that that would be a tool.”

Brownback also spoke of other religious freedom violations in China, citing the shutting down of Protestant house churches, restrictions placed on Tibetan Buddhists and threats by Beijing to appoint its own candidate as the next Dalai Lama – which would go against Tibetan Buddhist practice – and the “huge issue of organ harvesting of Falun Gong members that the Chinese government has not come clean on.”

Speaking at Trump’s event earlier, Vice President Mike Pence also referred to abuses in China, where he said the Communist Party “has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than a million Uighurs in the Muslim population.”

One of three guests introduced by Pompeo at the event was a Uighur, Jewher Ilham, the daughter of economist and scholar Ilham Tohti, who he said was “serving a life sentence in China as a prisoner of conscience.”

Ilham said the only thing her father was guilty of was publicly calling for peaceful dialogue and reconciliation.

“The Chinese government targets religion to ensure that people of faith do not answer to any greater power than the Communist Party,” she said. “Authorities have defaced or demolished churches, temples, and mosques throughout the country. Crosses and minarets have been replaced with hammers and sickles.”

“Spiritual images have been removed in favor of photos of authoritarians. The Ten Commandments have been taken down to make room for government propaganda. Children are forbidden from attending religious services,” Ilham said. “We are witnessing the systematic eradication of ethnic and religious minority identities in China.”

See also:

China Thanks 36 Countries, Half of Them Islamic States, for Praising Its Uighur Policies (Jul. 15, 2019)

Islamic Bloc Challenged Over its Silence on Uighurs: ‘If They Truly Care About Muslims …’ (Jul. 3, 2019)

China, Which Incarcerates Millions of Uighurs, Gets Seat on UN Forum for Indigenous Peoples (May 8, 2019)


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