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May 11, 2021

Chargé Patrick Connell's Remarks on Human Rights in China

“Human Rights in China: Uyghurs and Religious Minorities” Virtual Discussion

Remarks by Chargé d’Affaires Patrick Connell

May 11, 2021

Good afternoon.

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, friends: welcome to our panel discussion entitled, “Human Rights in China: Uyghurs and Religious Minorities.” Thank you all for joining us today. My name is Patrick Connell and I’m the Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

At the outset, I want to thank our moderator, John Allen, and our distinguished panel of experts for their participation in this very timely event on the state of religious freedom in the world, and especially the human rights crisis in China.

Our program today comes at an urgent moment for the cause of religious freedom. More than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where the freedom to practice their own faith is either threatened or outright prohibited. People across the globe are oppressed, beaten, and even killed for simply seeking to practice their faith or live according to their beliefs or their conscience,- things we take for granted every day.

China is among those nations where freedom of religion or belief is significantly and dangerously on the decline. Its government has gravely increased repression of all religions.

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 1st. 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.”  This is in a country where the Communist Party officially recognizes only five religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. These new regulations give the government even more power to control where people worship, with whom they worship, and how they can practice their faith.  Incredibly, anyone under the age of 18 is prohibited from participating in religious activities, including attending Mass or praying in a Mosque. The aim of such a law is clearly designed to destroy the bonds of faith among young people and slowly drain the life from religious groups.

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. Some have called this the worst crackdown on religion since the Cultural Revolution.

But Christians certainly are not alone in their harsh treatment in China. Muslim Uyghurs, ethnic Kazaks, Tibetan Buddhists, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups have suffered unspeakable atrocities under China’s authoritarian government. Their cultural, language, and religious traditions are under threat of being erased through an intrusive and high-tech state that criminalizes religious or cultural expression.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear that China is committing, “genocide and crimes against humanity” against Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, in western China.

Beijing has detained more than one million, predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, in a sprawling network of mass internment camps in Xinjiang. Detainees face torture, forced labor, and death. Family members don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones, or even whether they’re dead or alive.

Even for those living outside the internment camps, life takes on dystopian features, including mass surveillance, the involuntary sterilization of women, forced abortions, the removal of children from their families, and the dispatching of hundreds of thousands of people into forced residential labor programs in factories and farms. Symbols of Uyghur culture and religion, including mosques and sites of pilgrimage, are being destroyed.

This repression should serve as a chilling notice to all faithful in China – and to others around the world who understand the importance of fundamental rights, including the right to practice one’s faith or belief.

The Biden Administration has taken decisive steps to deter China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and to bring attention to the Uyghur crisis. The United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and government entities and banned and seized imports believed to be made with forced labor.

Amid growing international condemnation, on March 22nd, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada coordinated announcements on sanctions against human rights abusers in connection with the atrocities occurring in Xinjiang. And the UK House of Commons and the parliaments of Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada have joined us in accusing Beijing of genocide.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis was quoted last November as saying Muslim Uyghurs are a “persecuted people.” Public acknowledgement of the egregious human rights abuses in China is an important step toward holding the Chinese government accountable.

However, China continues to intimidate those who publicly criticize its actions, sanctioning countries, boycotting brands, and issuing travel restrictions on individuals. These tactics are intended to signal to others there will be consequences for speaking out against human rights abuses in China. Dr. Harri Uyghur, our fourth panelist and a Uyghur human rights activist, is sadly unable to be a part of our discussion today due to concerns for his safety and the wellbeing of his family. This is yet another example of the successful efforts to silence voices speaking out against the oppression of Uyghurs and other religious minorities. Another of our panelists will share her experience of reprisal after speaking out.

In the face of these pressures, the international community, across governments and in concert with civil society, needs to come together to condemn the abuses and call for the respect of religious freedom, dignity, and cultural heritage in China.

Future generations will rightly ask what we did to hold China accountable in the face of such crimes and the strong body of evidence and witness testimony to the truth.

Today, we have an outstanding panel of experts who will help shed light on that truth – on what is happening in China and why the government of the United States, and many others, are calling the atrocities in western China a genocide.

Our moderator John Allen will introduce each of our panelists, but I would like quickly to welcome and say a thank you to each of our guests: Marcela Szymanski is the editor-in-chief of the bi-annual report “Religious Freedom in the World published by the Papal Foundation Aid to the Church in Need. Rachel Harris is Professor of Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London; and Gulcherha Hoja, an award-winning journalist, is with Radio Free Asia. Thank you for being with us and I am honored to have each of you here today.

You can watch the video of the event here: https://fb.watch/5qk0FxHLKt/