Harris explained that the Chinese government’s ongoing oppression of Uyghur ethnic minority has been “consistently masked by this rhetoric of terrorism.”
“But actually what we see is a much more widespread campaign against the daily practice of religion.”
“In May 2014, Xi Jinping himself instigated what he called a People’s War on Terror. Uyghur passports were confiscated, the ties with the outside world were cut off, a tight net of surveillance tracked people’s every movements, and construction began on the system of mass internment camps,” she said.
“And it is very important to know that this war did not target those who might be reasonably assumed prone to extremist violence. This was really about the wholesale criminalization of religious practice, and so we’ve seen numerous government documents talking, for example, about the 75 types of behavior that demonstrate religious extremism.”
No Vatican representatives spoke at the Rome-based virtual event hosted by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
The Vatican Secretariat of State has not spoken publicly on the issue of the detention of Uyghurs in China. The Holy See signed in 2018 and then renewed in 2020 a two-year provisional agreement with the Chinese government, the contents of which have not been made public.
Pope Francis described the Uyghurs as a persecuted people in a book published last year. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying that the claim was groundless.
Patrick Connell, the U.S. embassy’s chargé d’affaires, said that “public acknowledgement of the egregious human rights abuses in China is an important step toward holding the Chinese government accountable.”
He noted in his opening remarks that Catholics in China have also faced severe restrictions in their right to worship.
“As part of the Chinese Communist Party’s expanding ‘Sinicization’ policy, which aims to bring religions even further under Communist Party control, China began enforcing new religious regulations May 1,” Connell said.
“The new law requires members of the clergy to prove that they ‘support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and support the socialist system.’”
(Story continues below)
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The U.S. diplomat pointed out that under the current restrictions, anyone in China “under the age of 18 is prohibited from participating in religious activities, including attending Mass or praying in a mosque.”
“Members of Catholic communities in China face other severe restrictions and limitations on their right to worship freely, with reports of government officials forcibly closing hundreds of churches, arresting Catholic bishops, priests, and nuns, and even forbidding them from engaging in any religious activity in their capacity as clergy. There’s pressure on schools to check up on the religious beliefs of their students and staff,” he said.
“Some have called this the worst crackdown on religion since the Cultural Revolution.”
Harri Uyghur, a human rights activist from China, was unable to speak at the event out of concern for his family’s safety. He asked instead for a note to be read at the event.
“I stand up for the human rights of people in China, particularly in Xinjiang. I have been contributing to the belief that all human beings are created equal. And what the Chinese government is committing in Xinjiang is not something normal human beings, including Chinese people, can ignore, nor stand aside from. The Chinese Communist Party should stop it immediately,” he wrote.
“I want to contribute for the good of the human rights of people in Xinjiang, but not at the cost of my parents or my family’s life, or their safety and wellbeing. I have done as much as I can. And I believe I can do more, but I really need to take a break, at least for now until my parents’ and in-laws’ safety and wellbeing is guaranteed.”