U.S. Religion Report Assails China Over Abuses Of Muslims, Calls Russia, Uzbekistan ‘Countries Of Particular Concern’

Members of China's Uyghur Muslim population continue to be subject to "egregious abuses" but the government in Beijing has faced few, if any, consequences, a bipartisan U.S. federal commission says in its 2019 annual report on religious freedom worldwide.

The report, published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on April 29, also recommends that the State Department include Russia and Uzbekistan alongside Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and others on a list of the worst violators of religious freedom the so-called Tier 1 "countries of particular concern" (CPCs).

Those recommendations reflect concern that the Russian state "accelerated [its] repressive behavior" toward religious minorities in 2018 and that "severe violations of religious freedom persisted" in Uzbekistan despite improvements.

The USCIRF denounces China for its treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority, mainly in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, as well as other mostly Muslim groups there such as ethnic Kazakhs. The Uyghurs of whom there are some 15 million in China have long complained about their treatment under Beijing's rule.

"Uyghur Muslims are constantly surveilled, their phones confiscated and scanned, their skin pricked for blood samples to collect their DNA, their children prohibited from attending mosque," the USCIRF report says.

"Even worse, the Chinese government has ripped entire families apart, detaining between 800,000 and 2 million adults in concentration camps and relegating some of their children to orphanages," the report adds.

"Families cannot contact one another due to fear of government monitoring; thus, countless Uyghur Muslims have no idea where their loved ones are or if they are even alive," it says.

It adds that although a handful of foreign governments including the United States, Britain, and Turkey have "harshly condemned" Beijing for these "egregious abuses," the government has not faced any consequences.

"Despite years of escalating abuses, the wider international community has tragically missed the opportunity to prevent what is now happening to Uyghur and other Muslims in China," it says.

Beijing has denied that it operates internment camps and reeducation centers for Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other mostly Muslim groups in Xinjiang. Turkic-speaking Kazakhs are the second-largest indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs, and the region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans.

The government insists the facilities are "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allow them to be reintegrated into society.

Hiding Behind 'Public Order'

The annual report says that "unfortunately, China is only one of several countries where freedom of religion or belief remained in peril throughout 2018."

While some governments "have joined the fight to promote freedom of religion or belief, others brazenly suppress it," it said.

It says countries such as Tajikistan, Sudan, and Vietnam suppress religious freedom under the guise of protecting "public order" or "national security," often using real or perceived threats of terrorism or public unrest to justify the restriction of rights and "outright persecution of their own people."

"Some like Russia, China, Eritrea, and Turkmenistan expose their own insecurities by branding religious and ethnic minorities as 'extremists,' in part because these governments believe these groups are under 'foreign influence,'" it adds.

The report was completed before the recent changes in Sudan, where massive street protests forced the overthrow of autocratic President Omar al-Bashir. A military council took over the government but has vowed to return it to soon to civilian control, although disputes remain.

The report highlights 16 countries it says met the State Department standards for "countries of particular concern." A Tier 1 country is one "whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe religious freedom violations, meaning those that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious."

USCIRF recommends that the State Department again designate Iran, Pakistan, Burma, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan as Tier 1 CPCs.

Pakistan in 2018 criticized the U.S. decision to place it on its list of countries that violate religious freedom, calling the move "unilateral and politically motivated."

'Nontraditional' Faiths Targeted

The USCIRF also recommends that six other countries be added to the Tier 1 list Russia, Uzbekistan, Syria, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Vietnam.

A year ago, the State Department added Russia and Uzbekistan, along with Comoros, to its Special Watch List for those that engaged in or tolerated severe violations but were not deemed to meet all CPC criteria.

That change was an upgrade for Uzbekistan, which had been on the CPC list since 2006, but the USCIRF says that while there were improvements, violations in 2018 meant that the country again "merits designation" as a CPC.

"In 2018, religious-freedom conditions in Uzbekistan trended positive in certain areas," the report says, but despite "positive developments originating at the highest levels of the government, severe violations of religious freedom persisted."

Among other things, it says, "police forces and members of Uzbekistan's State Security Service...continued to harass, intimidate, raid, fine, and detain members of Christian communities, particularly Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses."

The USCIRF has recommended a CPC designation for Russia since 2017. In the new report, it says that in 2018 "Russia accelerated the repressive behavior" that led to that recommendation.

"The government continued to target 'nontraditional' religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism," it says. "Russian legislation targets 'extremism' without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent, nonpolitical religious activity."

"The Jehovah's Witnesses, whom the government banned outright in 2017, faced severe persecution by the state," according to the report.

"The leadership of the St. Petersburg Church of Scientology remained under house arrest, while numerous adherents of the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat and readers of the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for peaceful religious expression," it adds.

"In the North Caucasus, security forces acted with complete impunity, arresting and kidnapping persons suspected of even tangential links to Islamist militancy," it says. "In Russian-occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will."

Elsewhere, the USCIRF highlights 12 countries as Tier 2 those in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" CPC standard.

For 2019, it said those countries are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey.

It also recommends that the State Department designate five organizations as "entities of particular concern," or EPCs a term for a "nonstate actor" that "exercises significant political power and territorial control; is outside the control of a sovereign government; and often employs violence in pursuit of its objectives."

Those listed as EPCs are the Islamic State group of Iraq and Syria, the extremist group also known as IS; the Taliban in Afghanistan; Al-Shabaab in Somalia; Iranian-backed Huthis in Yemen; and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham previously called the Al-Nusra Front the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

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