Remarks on Religious Freedom

Remarks
Samuel D. Brownback
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom 
Foreign Correspondents Club
Hong Kong, China
March 8, 2019


Introduction

Good morning everyone. I see the New York Times is here. The NYT has been covering U.S. Politics extensively. Now I have been in public life for some time. I want to share the story from a waiter that I met at the United Nations. As I met this waiter, he states that this is his first time meeting a vintage US Politician. That’s what I am these days, a vintage US Politician. I want to thank the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for providing a platform for me to speak. I am also grateful for the added touch of meeting someone who spent some time in my State of Kansas. We will need some more time to discuss Kansas basketball or barbeque.

I have visited Hong Kong several times. Followers of nearly every religion in the world are here, all peacefully practicing their faith in whatever way they see fit. Here in Hong Kong, people can worship free from the fear of persecution that unfortunately is all too common in many parts of the world. Hong Kong should serve as an example of religious freedom for other governments and around the world to follow. I will have remarks today that go in depth, please refill your coffee. If you lose interest, a short nap is possible.

I would like to begin by expressing my profound respect for the Chinese people. My youngest daughter is Chinese and now attends school at Baylor University.

As I receive reports about the suffering Chinese people of faith are experiencing, I cannot help but wonder why the Chinese Communist Party does not trust its own people to allow them to choose their own path for their souls. There are one billion souls at stake. It seems the Chinese government is at war with faith. It is a war they will not win. During this speech, I will express a number of concerns the United States has about the religious freedom situation in mainland China. That is out of lament, not anger. We highly regard the Chinese people for all their contributions to mankind in the past, present, and for the future.

What does the Chinese Communist Party have to fear from its faithful people? Why can’t it trust its people with a Bible? Why can’t Uighur children be named Mohammad? Why can’t the Tibetans choose and venerate their own religious leaders like they have for more than a thousand years?

Increasing Religious Freedom Problems in China

Sadly, people living in mainland China do not enjoy the religious freedom people enjoy here. The Chinese government continues to violate the sacred right to religious freedom that is in its Constitution and also enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human rights. Since 1999, the United States has designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and this is the most concerning category, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. China should get off this list. I traveled to Pakistan recently and they too should get off this list.

As we have in the past, we will continue to speak out against violations of religious freedom around the world. As Vice President Pence said at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last year and there will be another one this July, “the right to believe or not believe is the most fundamental of freedoms. When religious liberty is denied or destroyed, we know that other freedoms — freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and even democratic institutions themselves — are imperiled. That’s why the United States of America stands for religious freedom yesterday, today, and always. We do this because it is right. But we also do this because religious freedom is in the interest of the peace and security of the world.”

We have all watched China emerge onto the international stage. I first traveled to China 1985. I believe the efforts by the Chinese government to exert control over members of countless religious groups, often along ethnic lines, through the enforcement of “religious affairs regulations,” the destruction of houses of worship, the unlawful imprisonment of religious leaders, and actions to ruthlessly silence any forms of constructive dissent, demonstrates its disregard for the individual dignity of every Chinese citizen.

In that spirit, I want to talk about concerns the United States government has – and specifically about the deteriorating state of religious freedom in mainland China. Over the last few years, we have seen increasing Chinese government persecution of religious believers from many faiths and from all parts of the mainland. The world is taking notice.

Xinjiang

Let me start in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region – it is alarming that Chinese government authorities have arbitrarily detained members of Muslim minority groups in internment camps for reasons including common religious practices, such as having a beard, wearing a veil, attending services, observing Ramadan, sharing religious writings, or even praying.

Since April 2017, mainland authorities have detained more than one million ethnic Muslims. They have targeted and forcibly relocated to internment camps Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups. Family members do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones, or even whether they are dead or alive. The Trump Administration is deeply concerned, and considers this oppression a deliberate attempt by Beijing to redefine and control members of these Muslim minority groups’ identity, culture, and faith.

China describes these sprawling camps with guard towers and barbed wire as simply “vocational training centers.” We need to call these camps what they are; they’re internment camps created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities. Numerous reports indicate that mainland authorities force innocent people into these camps often based primarily on their religious beliefs and ethnic identity. The international community has seen and covered these events. I recently read two articles on these events. They are then held for an indeterminate amount of time and subjected to physical and psychological torture, intense political indoctrination, and forced labor. In November, a survivor of one of these camps told the United States Congress that she was brutally tortured and witnessed at least nine other innocent women in her cell die in just a few months. The same woman was separated from her triplets. Tragically, one of her children died while being held in Chinese government custody. Beyond the camps, the Chinese government also represses people in Xinjiang, restricting travel, monitoring their every move by using a high-tech Orwellian surveillance system, and banning certain religious practices. The government even bans children from participating in religious services and prohibits parents from naming their children common Islamic names.

China has long used its economic weight to silence criticism of its severe human rights abuses. I applaud the countries that have spoken out against China’s abuses in Xinjiang. Turkey recently issued a strong condemnation of the human rights crisis there. More countries should do so.

China justifies its use of internment camps and other repressive practices by claiming that it is rooting out terrorism preemptively.

But China is not solving a terrorist problem by forcibly moving women, children, the elderly, and the highly educated intelligentsia into mass detention centers and internment camps. Instead, they are creating one. The magnitude of these detentions is completely out of proportion to any real threat China faces from extremism, even according to China’s own official media and police reports. Xinjiang had not even reported a large scale extremist incident for more than a year and a half before the detentions expanded after March 2017. Rather the Chinese government’s actions are intended to ensure that distinct ethnic and religious peoples are brutally and forcefully controlled; why —because they are different. Somehow, men and women of faith are viewed as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party.

Based on the testimonies of survivors, it is clear that China’s misguided and cruel policies in Xinjiang are creating resentment, hatred, division, poverty, and anger. To use a Chinese official’s own words, this is essentially fertilizing the “soil that breeds terrorism...”

Tibet

In Tibet, China’s oppression of religious believers is not limited to Muslims leaders. The Chinese government attacks believers of nearly every faith, in every region of China. In Tibet, China continues its decades-long policies of aggressively interfering with Tibetan Buddhist practices and Tibetan culture. Domestic and overseas restrictions on both lay people and Tibetan Buddhist monastics hinder traditional religious pilgrimages. Chinese authorities have appointed Chinese Communist Party cadres to lead local monasteries while banning Tibetan children from participating in religious activities. The Chinese government has pushed thousands of monks and nuns out of their homes and bulldozed their monasteries. In 2017, the government evicted approximately 9,000 monks and nuns from the Larung Gar Institute of Tibetan Buddhism and demolished an estimated 4,000 residences there. The same year, authorities destroyed at least 2,000 residences and evicted approximately 2,500 monks and nuns at Yachen Gar Institute of Tibetan Buddhism.

Chinese officials have also withheld public benefits from family members and friends of Tibetans who self-immolated in protest against China’s political and religious oppression. The government has ordered friends and monastic personnel to refrain from participating in religious burial rites or mourning activities for the self-immolators.

In addition, the Chinese government has repeatedly denigrated His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans and many others around the world. The Chinese government bans his picture and his teachings, and it arrests people who openly revere him. According to reports, authorities subject monks and nuns to “patriotic re-education” at many monasteries and nunneries across the Tibetan Plateau, forcing these religious leaders to be proficient in state ideology and to denounce the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government has also long interfered in the succession process for spiritual leaders in Tibet, most notably when in 1995 it abducted the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, when he was six years old, along with his parents. The world still does not know if the Panchen Lama is dead or alive. He would be celebrating his 30th birthday next month. Following the abduction, the Chinese government asserted its own choice as the Panchen Lama. That child grew up in Beijing. The Chinese government only allows him to have brief, supervised visits to the Panchen Lama’s traditional monastery in Shigatse, and that’s for photo ops. We call upon the Chinese government to release immediately the Tibetan-recognized Panchen Lama or share the truth about his fate with the world. We do not accept the Chinese government’s often repeated explanation that he is studying and does not want to be disturbed.

This is the Chinese government’s record, and it indicates that they are likely to interfere with the selection of the next Dalai Lama. The international community must make clear now that we believe that members of the Tibetan communities, like members of all faith communities, should be able to select, educate, and venerate their religious leaders without government interference.

Christians

The Chinese government has also increased its repression of Christians. Last year, mainland China began enforcing amended regulations for religious affairs. Those regulations give the government more power to control where people worship, with whom they worship, and what the content of their worship is. Since those regulations came into force the crackdown on Christianity has increased dramatically.

Starting on Good Friday last year, Chinese officials began to enforce a ban on the online sale of the Bible. We ask the question, “Why is the Chinese government afraid of the Bible?”

With regard to Catholic communities, we have heard reports that authorities in Henan Province have prohibited all people under the age of 18 from entering Catholic churches to attend mass. In September, the Roman Catholic Church reached a provisional agreement with the Chinese government regarding a process to appoint bishops. Dozens of bishop appointments are vacant, some for positions with large dioceses that have been empty for several years. Although details have not been made public, the agreement reportedly allows the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) to choose a slate of candidates for a vacant bishop position. The Vatican reportedly can only select from one of the candidates the CCPA selects. Therefore, the power to select the leaders of the Catholic Church in China rests partially with the Chinese Communist Party, which likely results in only individuals whom the Party deems loyal to its interests being put forth to the Vatican. Members of the Catholic community, such as Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, who members of the audience here know, courageously and vehemently opposed this deal. We remain concerned about the precedent this deal sets for the Chinese Communist Party’s perceived authority in interfering in the selection of other religious leaders, such as preeminent Tibetan Buddhist lamas like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since this provisional deal was announced last year, the Chinese government’s abuse of members of Catholic communities has continued. We see no signs that will change in the near future.

In Zhejiang Province, observers estimate that from 2014-2016 the Chinese government destroyed more than 2,000 crosses and Christian churches. In the same province today, there are reports of officials pressuring believers to renounce their Christian faith. Media reports also indicate that over the last year, government authorities throughout China have forcibly closed hundreds of unregistered churches from “house church” Protestant and “underground” Catholic communities. To give just a few recent examples, in September, Beijing authorities ordered the closing of the 1,500 member Zion Church. A few months later, authorities shut down the 40-year old Ronguili Church in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

In Chengdu, government authorities forcefully detained over 200 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church, Sichuan Province’s; it was the largest house church, in May 2018, for commemorating the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Seven months later, in December 2018, government authorities once again arrested more than 100 Early Rain members, confiscated the church’s Bibles and other religious materials, and permanently closed the church. At least a dozen remain detained and their whereabouts and health conditions remain unknown, while the Chinese authorities prevent them from seeing their family members, or even talking with their lawyers. Meanwhile, the government continues to monitor, harass, and, in some cases, physically assault family members of the detainees and prevents them from worshipping in even small groups. In one case, a security official kicked the elderly mother of the Early Rain lead pastor Wang Yi until she collapsed on the ground while violently ripping her hair. The authorities have detained both parents of several infants and toddlers, meaning these young children are residing with relatives, but without any knowledge of whether or not they will ever see their fathers or mothers again, or even knowing if those parents are still alive.

Chinese authorities have charged Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong with “inciting subversion of state power.” China is using baseless political charges to attack individuals for simply practicing their faith.

Pastor Wang instructed his followers to release his “Declaration of Faithful Disobedience” – which I urge people to read; it is an amazing letter- if authorities detained him for more than 48 hours. Chinese authorities have detained Pastor Wang a number of times already for his courage and outspokenness, including most recently for initiating a nationwide petition reiterating house churches’ refusal to register with the government-backed Three-Self Patriotic Movement. His words and call to action for how Christians should carry out what he calls “faithful disobedience” – distinct from political or civil disobedience – inspires me and many others. We believe that Chinese authorities wanted to send a message to others who dare follow in his footsteps and defy the Communist Party.

But as a man of faith myself, I think the Chinese Communist Party may have done the opposite. When faith is under attack, it grows stronger. In Scriptures, and throughout church history, we see persecution sparking resolve and perseverance in the faith. The resolve of the Early Rain Covenant Church community and countless others facing severe persecution is unshaken because they know that fighting for their right to freely exercise their beliefs is not wrong, no matter how heavy-handed the punishment and severe the mistreatment. I stand here today in support of Pastor Wang, his wife, and other members of their church and call on the Chinese authorities to release them immediately.

I also stand here in support of Pastor John Cao. His wife, Jamie, is American. She is a bold advocate for Pastor Cao’s release. Pastor Cao provided aid and education to disadvantaged children in China and Burma. That’s what he did and today he’s held in a 26 by 10 foot cell, with a dozen other prisoners. He’s permitted to see sunshine just once a month. His wife and sons aren’t allowed to visit him. We call yet again for his immediate release.

Falun Gong

Finally, Chinese government oppression also extends to the Falun Gong, whose abuse has been well-documented. The Chinese government detains and reportedly tortures Falun Gong practitioners, with credible estimates putting the number of Falun Gong practitioners in prison in the thousands. The Falun Gong estimates that in 2018 alone, at least 69 Falun Gong practitioners died in Chinese government custody or due to injuries they sustained while in custody. Allegations persist that the Chinese government continues to forcibly harvest organs from prisoners held on account of their faith, like Falun Gong practitioners and Uighurs. Data from brave, persistent researchers raise concerning questions regarding the organ transplantation system in China, with voluntary donations unable to meet the demand. This is the truly horrifying prospect. We will continue to advocate for the Chinese government to end abuse and mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners. This has lasted for more than twenty years and must stop. Also, they must address the whereabouts of missing practitioners.

What We Are Doing

The Chinese Communist Party must hear the cries of its own people for religious freedom and act to correct this wrong.

The Chinese people are a great people. Someday soon, they will be free to practice their faith. The gates of religious freedom will fly open in China and the iron curtain of religious persecution will come down. The Chinese government is currently on the wrong side of history…but this will change.

The United States and other nations are bringing together government and religious leaders from around the world to promote religious freedom for all. We created the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last July specifically to advance this cause. Secretary Pompeo has already announced that the next Ministerial will take place on July 16th to 18th in Washington.

We are also working with other governments and groups around the world to host follow-on regional conferences that focus on religious freedom issues specific to that area.

Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the first of these held in Abu Dhabi. There, the topic was promoting religious freedom and interfaith tolerance in education materials. This weekend, I will travel to Taipei, where the next conference will take place and will include civil society representatives from all over the East Asian and Pacific region. More are planned in Europe, Mongolia, and Latin America. The goal is to infuse religious freedom as a priority among governments and among civil society and religious groups, worldwide. We hope you will join us in this effort. We hope you will attend the Ministerial in July.

Conclusion

Through all of our efforts, we are chasing a simple but important dream: that one day all peoples around the world will be able to worship freely and believe what they want, just like you can in Hong Kong. We invite the rest of the world to join us in achieving this goal. As the detained pastor of the Early Rain Church, Wang Yi [Wong Yee], said: “In Xinjiang, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers have chosen an enemy that can never be imprisoned – the soul of man.”

Thank you for your time today. Thank you to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for hosting me, and God bless you and us on our joint efforts to have religious freedom for all.