Author archives: Arielle Del Turco

3 Alarming Developments for Religious Freedom in China This Year

by Arielle Del Turco

December 4, 2020

This week, Family Research Council updated its publication, Religious Freedom in China: The History, Current Challenges, and the Proper Response to a Human Rights Crisis. Just one year after the report was first issued, religious freedom conditions have noticeably worsened.

Bob Fu, President of ChinaAid and Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council, knows well the dangers that the Chinese government can pose to people of faith. As a former pastor of a house church, Fu spent time in a Chinese prison for practicing his faith.

Concerning the recent uptick in persecution in the last several years, Fu said, “Xi Jinping has launched a war against faith. Any faith or religion independent of its absolute total control in China is perceived as a threat to the existence of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. Religious persecution has reached to the worst level since Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960s.”

Here are three ways that things have gotten worse for religious believers in China in 2020:

1. The Chinese government assaulted freedoms in Hong Kong.

One of the most disturbing provocations of the Chinese government over the last year was its breach of an agreement with the British government in which it promised to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and Western-style liberties for 50 years following the city’s return to China in 1997. By imposing a new national security law onto Hong Kong in June, the Chinese government endangered religious freedom in several ways.

The new law enables the government to crack down on offenses that are seen to undermine its authority. But in China, anything the government deems can be considered an act against the state. In mainland China, protestant pastor Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years in prison for “subversion of state power” because he pastored a well-known house church and spoke out against the government’s oppressive policies—hardly behavior worthy of a national security-related charge.

Now, many Hong Kongers fear a similar fate might befall them. Several prominent Christian pro-democracy activists have already been arrested under the new law. Just this week, young pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were sentenced to 13 months and 10 months in prison, respectively, for charges related to participating in unauthorized protests.

The national security law is devastating for those in Hong Kong who wish to live out their faith and express their opinions freely.

2. Uyghur Muslims are being forcibly sterilized in Xinjiang.

New details have emerged this year about the genocidal nature of China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. While the world has now come to know about the estimated one million Uyghurs detained in “re-education” camps and often “graduated” to forced labor camps, the details of the situation in Xinjiang grow more horrific.

Attempting to cut the birth rates of the minority Uyghur population, local officials have required pregnancy tests, forced sterilizations, and at times forced abortions, on hundreds of thousands of women. The brutal campaign has proven successful. Birth rates in the largely Uyghur areas of Hotan and Kashgar decreased by more than 60 percent from 2015 to 2018.

One Uyghur hospital worker described the forced abortions she witnessed, saying:

The husbands were not allowed inside. They take in the women, who are always crying. Afterwards, they just threw the fetus in a plastic bag like it was trash. One mother begged to die after her 7-month-old baby was killed. It took three more days to give birth. It was a proper baby. She asked if they could bury it, but the doctors would not give it to the family.

The many tragedies inflicted upon Uyghur women and families are difficult to comprehend. The capacity for cruelty by the Chinese Communist Party is on display in Xinjiang like no place else.

3. Catholics continue to be targeted, despite the Vatican agreement.

In October, the Vatican renewed its agreement with the Chinese government which is thought to give the Chinese government a role in nominating bishops. Although the Vatican’s hope is to unite the long-divided Chinese Catholic church, things have not improved for Catholics since the initial agreement in 2018.

In September, a 46-year-old priest in the Fujian province was reportedly tortured by Chinese authorities for refusing to join the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. After China lifted its COVID-19 lockdown this summer, reports surfaced that state-sanctioned Catholic churches were directed that Mass could only resume if they preached “patriotism,” which is code for loyalty to the Party.

Catholic human rights activist Nina Shea points to a litany of ways in which the China-Vatican agreement has failed to produce positive results for the faithful in China.

Yet, despite the government’s attempt to intimidate, harass, imprison, and oppress believers, religious belief is not fading in China. Throughout the often-brutal history of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to eradicate religion before to no avail. As Bob Fu says, “Xi Jinping and the CCP should know from history that this war against religion, in particular against true Christian faith, is destined to fail miserably.”

To learn more about the dire religious freedom violations happening in China today, read FRC’s publication, Religious Freedom in China.

4 Disturbing Trends in Religious Freedom Worldwide

by Arielle Del Turco

November 16, 2020

A report released last week by the Pew Research Center has found that there has been a 50 percent increase in government restrictions on religion across the globe between 2007 and 2018, the most recent year studied. Such a drastic number indicates that religious freedom is on a rapid downward spiral.

This is troubling, and it presents a myriad of security, economic, and human rights challenges for the millions of people who live under governments that are tightening restrictions on peaceful religious practices. For world leaders and advocates to successfully begin addressing these issues, it is critical to understand what is happening around the world and what is driving increasing attacks on religious freedom.

Pew’s extensive survey reveals a lot about what religious believers are enduring around the world—both from governments and from social hostilities. Here are four take-aways from Pew’s new report:

1. Government restrictions on religion are rising in Asia.

Asia and the Pacific had the biggest increase in the amount of government restrictions on religion in 2018. Pew researchers found that governments used force against religious believers and groups in 62 percent of countries in Asia and the Pacific, including detention, displacement, abuse, and killings.

Asia is a worsening hotspot for religious persecution. Just in the last several years, China has started a campaign of mass detention of Uyghur Muslims, North Korea remains the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, and apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws across Asia restrict individuals’ rights to choose and change their faith. These developments are all concerning and all deserve the world’s attention and advocacy.

2. Authoritarian regimes pose the greatest threat to religious freedom.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pew found a “strong association between authoritarianism and government restrictions on religion.” Around 65 percent of countries with very high government restrictions on religion have authoritarian governments. In contrast, no countries with very high government restrictions were classified as full democracies.

3. Three Middle Eastern countries have both the highest levels of government restrictions and social hostility to religion.

Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are the only three countries which were found to have both very high government restrictions and very high social hostilities toward religion in 2018. Targeted religious believers in these countries endure governments that impede their freedom to practice their faith and face private groups or individuals that regularly harass or abuse them. This is a deadly combination, and it is indicative of the severe challenges faced by believers throughout the entire Middle East.  

4. Harassment due to religion remains high.

Harassment due to religion occurs in 185 out of 198 countries—the vast majority of the world. While this is slightly down from the previous year, the number of countries where Christians experienced harassment rose slightly.

Pew considers harassment to include everything from verbal abuse to physical violence and killings which are motivated because of a person’s religious identity. Christians and Muslims reportedly faced the most harassment for their faith worldwide. The region of the Middle East and North Africa is especially dangerous. In 2018, Christians in 19 out of the 20 total countries faced harassment by social groups or the government.

Ultimately, it should be a wake-up call to the world that religious persecution is at the highest point it has been in the past 11 years when Pew began tracking it. Things are getting worse, not better. And that is tragic for millions of religious people around the world just trying to live out their faith. The persecuted—especially those living under highly restrictive authoritarian regimes—are often unable to speak up for themselves. It falls, then, to those of us in free societies to speak up on their behalf.

Please Pray With Us for Persecuted Christians Around the World

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

October 30, 2020

This Sunday, November 1, 2020 is this year’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. For decades, Christian churches, organizations, and individual believers have observed this annual summons to prayer and intercession on the first Sunday of November.

It is well known today that those who believe in Jesus Christ comprise the most persecuted religious community in the world. Their suffering continues world-wide, and of course we should pray for our beleaguered brothers and sisters wherever they may be.

But at Family Research Council, we want to remind you of countries on which we’ve focused special attention in recent months. These are exceptionally troubled places, where our fellow believers are very much in need of special prayers and will be grateful for them—on this Sunday and beyond.

Please pray with us for suffering believers in the following persecution hot spots:

Nigeria

Since the dawn of the 21st century, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnappings of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased. Such attacks are frequently accompanied by the torching of homes, churches, villages, and agricultural fields.

On July 15, headlines reported that 1,202 Nigerian Christians had been killed in the first six months of 2020. This was is in addition to 11,000 Christians who had lost their lives since June 2015. Such violence has now reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a “slow-motion war” specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation. Nearly every week we hear reports about murders, kidnappings, stolen property, torched churches, and massacres in Nigeria.

North Korea

In North Korea, any expression of faith might get someone sent to a labor camp, often for the rest of their life, and their family is often sent with them. It is believed that approximately 50,000 Christians are held in political prison labor camps, where detainees endure starvation, torture, and even execution.

Even for Christians who don’t get caught, practicing their faith is a deeply isolated experience. Christians in North Korea cannot gather in large groups with other believers. The government recruits many citizens to spy on their neighbors, creating a culture of fear and privacy among Christians and any dissenters to the North Korean government.  

Nagorno-Karabakh

Since September 27, a fierce war has been blazing between Azerbaijan’s heavily armed military forces and Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave comprised of Armenian Christian civilians. Azerbaijan’s assaults have been intensified by Syrian jihadi mercenaries, paid for and sent into the fray by Turkey’s Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan. A number of churches have been damaged or destroyed and residential areas continued to be bombed and shelled, with residents fleeing for their lives.

Today’s Armenian Christians are the surviving sons and daughters of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the early 20th century. During that bloodbath, the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish Muslims slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians. At that genocide’s beginning, on November 13, 1914, a call to jihad—a holy war against Christian “infidels”—was officially announced by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V Resad.  The carnage began just days later.

Disturbingly, Azerbaijan’s present invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh is perceived by most Armenian Christians as the continuation of that historic Islamist jihad against Armenia’s Christians. More than half the enclave’s population has either fled or are hiding in cellars and basements, praying for their lives and the lives of their children.

China

People of faith in China are under enormous pressure under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Xi has initiated a campaign to “Sinicize” religion to make it more compatible with the teachings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Churches must join government-approved church associations or face harassment, intimidation, and the possibility of getting shut down by the government.

Since the Chinese government cannot eradicate Christianity altogether, it is attempting to reshape it according to the values of the Communist Party. The Chinese government is now attempting to re-write a version of the Bible which promotes socialist values. Those believers that refuse to go to state-sanctioned churches and choose house churches free of government interference are burdened with the fear of what punishment may come their way. As we saw with the imprisonment of well-known Pastor Wang Yi, the Chinese government is willing to impose harsh punishments on prominent people of faith who speak up for religious freedom.

Pakistan

Pakistani Christians are plagued by a society and legal system that discriminates against them. Christians and others are often accused of violating blasphemy laws by neighbors looking to settle an unrelated argument. Those convicted can spend years in prison, or even end up on death row.

Predators take advantage of Pakistan’s discrimination in the judicial system to prey upon young girls from religious minority communities because they know they will not be held accountable by authorities. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace, a Pakistani human rights organization, estimates that at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian women and girls are kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men and convert to Islam every year. The latest such case is unfolding in Pakistani courts this month.

Iran

Notorious for its outrageous cruelties, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains one of the world’s worst persecutors of religious minorities. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended in its 2020 report that the United States should “Redesignate Iran as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

At the same time, Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List places Iran among the top 10 persecutors of Christians in the world. The Islamic Republic sometimes arrests Christians from traditional and “legal” churches. But it unleashes most of its vitriol on Christian converts from Islam, whom it views as apostates, and often designates them as “Christian Zionists.” Yet despite the dangers, many of Iran’s mostly young converts continue to be zealous and outspoken.

The annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is an important reminder to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. May it start a habit of praying for the persecuted every day.

The Courage and Faith of Hong Kong Freedom Fighter Jimmy Lai

by Arielle Del Turco

October 12, 2020

What first drove Jimmy Lai—now an internationally-known media tycoon and a high-profile pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong—to seek answers in the Christian faith? Probably not what you might expect. In an interview with the Napa Institute last week, Lai’s answer to that question began with the story of the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

Before the handover, Hong Kong’s citizens enjoyed fundamental freedoms and ample opportunity under British rule that citizens of mainland China did not. When Lai was just 12 years old, he fled from mainland China to Hong Kong as a stowaway to seek the opportunities provided by the city’s freedoms. Starting as a child laborer, he worked his way up the corporate ladder and became a successful businessman in his own right.

By 1997, Lai had become a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He knew that with the Chinese government encroaching on Hong Kong, “if they had to arrest ten people, I would be one of them.” Lai said, “This fear prompted me to look for God.”

At midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong formally came under the Chinese Communist Party’s jurisdiction. The following day, Lai joined the Catholic Church under the leadership of then-Bishop Joseph Zenz.

Now that the Chinese government is seeking even greater control over Hong Kong, Lai is once again facing the threat of imprisonment, due to his position as a pro-democracy advocate.

When China imposed a new national security law for Hong Kong in June, the Chinese government expanded its power to crack down on anyone it deems a national security threat. But in China, a threat to “national security” often means a threat to the Party. In August of this year, Lai was arrested under the new law for “collusion with foreign powers” due to his pro-democracy advocacy. His sons were also arrested at their homes. The same day, over 200 police officers raided Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.

Though Lai is currently released on bail, he could receive a minimum of 10 years in jail if he is convicted on that charge. But these developments were not altogether surprising for Lai. In an op-ed published in late May, he wrote, “I have feared that one day the Chinese Communist Party would grow tired not only of Hong Kong’s free press but also of its free people. That day has come.”

Lai has British citizenship, and he can easily escape the tense environment in Hong Kong and the new risks that come with living there. Yet, his conviction requires him to stay. He told the Napa Institute, “If I go away, I not only give up my destiny, I give up God, I give up my religion, I give up what I believe in.”

Religious freedom is a foremost consideration as Lai continues to advocate for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong. The Chinese government’s war on faith is ramping up, and Lai suggests this crackdown is part of the Party’s goal to further consolidate and secure its own power. He notes, “Once you don’t have a religion, you can easily be dictated by their order.”

Though the risks are higher than ever for this 71-year-old self-made entrepreneur, he continues to advocate for freedom and finds purpose in doing so. As he faces an uncertain future, his reflections are significant and ought to inspire us all: “When you lift yourself above your own self-interest, you find the meaning of life. You find you’re doing the right thing, which is so wonderful. It changed my life into a different thing.”

House Takes Aim at China’s Forced Labor Program

by Arielle Del Turco

September 24, 2020

By passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on Tuesday with an overwhelming majority, the House of Representatives sent a message to the Chinese government that the United States is done funding China’s atrocities. Now, it’s the Senate’s turn to take up this measure which is in line with the priority and focus on religious freedom we have already seen from the Senate and the White House.

The world is increasingly coming to grips with the fact that China is detaining an estimated one to three million Uyghur Muslims in “re-education” camps, where detainees face brainwashing and torture. But the human rights abuses are not confined to the camps. The State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report found that “Many detained individuals approved to ‘graduate’ from these facilities were sent to external manufacturing sites in close proximity to the camps or in other provinces and subjected to forced labor, while others were transferred and potentially subjected to forced labor within a separate formal prison system.”

Evidence of China’s forced labor scheme in Xinjiang has been mounting over the past year. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that many Uyghurs are transferred from “re-education” camps and sent to live in dormitories on factory grounds where they work. They are made to take ideological training classes, constantly surveilled, and forbidden from practicing their religion. 

While mass internment of a religious minority group can be expensive, China has found a way to financially profit from these human rights violations by forcing “re-education” camp detainees to work in factories. 

Unfortunately, the supply chains of major American companies—including Nike and Apple—have been linked to Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang. In July, the New York Times found that Uyghur forced labor likely contributed to the production of face masks made in China during the response to COVID-19.

The list of companies caught in complicity is long, and many of these companies hold policies mandating responsible workplace conditions that these Xinjiang factories clearly violate. The secretive nature of the camps and factories makes investigating these concerns difficult. Therefore, it is no longer safe to assume that any goods produced in Xinjiang are free of forced labor without solid evidence to the contrary.

China’s forced labor program is just one small part of the government’s larger aim to “sinicize” religion and scrub all faiths of anything that might make someone loyal to a higher authority than the Chinese Communist Party. One local Chinese government report stated that sending young Uyghurs to work away from their home and family can change their outlook by “distancing them from religiously extreme views and educating them.”

In July, the U.S. State Department issued a business advisory warning companies about the risks of supply chains in Xinjiang linking to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor. The advisory specifically noted the dangers of aiding in the development of surveillance tools, using labor or goods sourced in Xinjiang, and assisting in the construction of internment facilities. The advisory warned of reputational, economic, and legal risks to these actions—risks that are becoming a reality. Companies that have not already considered moving their supply chains elsewhere in Asia or the world should seriously consider doing so now.

Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) issued withhold release orders on four Chinese companies and a Communist Party subsidiary known to use forced labor. The orders block products from these companies from entering the U.S. While this is an important and necessary step, forced labor taints factories throughout Xinjiang, and stopping unethically-produced products from entering the American market requires a broader approach.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act offers a practical solution to combat China’s ideologically-motivated oppression. The bill would require companies to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that any goods produced in Xinjiang imported to the U.S. are not made using forced labor—thereby hindering the Chinese government’s ability to profit from its forced labor scheme. It also calls on the U.S. secretary of state to develop a strategy for addressing forced labor in Xinjiang and sanctioning individuals responsible for the forced labor program.

While U.S. leaders, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, have stood out as global leaders criticizing China’s dismal human rights records, actions always speak louder than words. At the most fundamental level, we must ensure that American citizens and companies are not unknowingly financing the same Chinese human rights and religious freedom abuses our leaders disparage

Ultimately, Americans do not want to fund China’s rights abuses, and shopping for everyday products at brand name retailers should not put them at risk of financially supporting atrocities abroad. American companies and consumers deserve to be protected from unknowingly participating in China’s oppression of a religious minority group.

The House took an important first step by passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. It’s up to the Senate to keep the ball moving. The Senate should work to swiftly pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to ensure the U.S. plays no part in China’s oppression of the Uyghur people.

Why All Christians Should Care About International Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco

September 18, 2020

Between the coronavirus pandemic, racial tensions, and an election around the corner, America is dealing with a lot. The temptation to ignore the difficulties faced by others around the world—even pressing issues such as international religious freedom—is understandable.

But for a 14-year-old Christian girl forced by a Pakistani court to live with the man who kidnapped her and forced her to convert to Islam and marry him, she may place her hope in the fact that people in free countries are sounding the alarm and advocating on her behalf. This alone is reason to care about religious freedom around the globe and raise our voices on behalf of the persecuted—because many cannot speak up for themselves.

Attacks on religious freedom against those of all faiths are escalating in many regions of the world, amounting to a global crisis. Over 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of governmental or societal religious oppression.

Christians have many reasons to prioritize religious freedom. First, because God calls us to care for the persecuted church, the downtrodden, and those who cannot help themselves (Psalm 82:3-4, Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27). Second, because Christian theology aligns with the principles of religious freedom. God does not coerce us into believing; likewise, we should not use government to coerce others. True faith must always be a free choice. Third, there are practical humanitarian benefits when religious freedom thrives, leading to freer, safer, and more prosperous societies for those that embrace it.

Scripture compels us to care for the persecuted church, the downtrodden, and those who cannot help themselves. Because God has allowed us to freely choose Him, it is right that we follow His example by ensuring everyone everywhere has the freedom to believe, without government or social coercion.

Ultimately, religious freedom affirms the human dignity of every individual by allowing them to live according to their conscience. Anything less than robust religious freedom protections is immoral. This is a more than sufficient reason for the world to care about religious freedom.

For more on the importance of international religious freedom and what you can do about it, read FRC’s new publication International Religious Freedom: What Is It and Why Should You Care?

In North Korea, the Choice to Be a Christian Can Be Fatal

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

September 8, 2020

When Ji Hyeona was growing up in North Korea, the word “faith” meant being loyal to the Kim family dictators.

Religious freedom doesn’t exist in North Korea and adhering to any religion is extremely dangerous, as Ji found out for herself. One day, she was taken to the local Ministry of State Security without warning. There, she was beaten and tortured, not knowing why she was being singled out for such treatment.

Then, the authorities placed Ji’s Bible on the desk in front of her. It was a Bible her mother had brought back to North Korea after a trip to China, and Ji had begun to read it. Sadly, her own friend had reported her to the government for possessing a Bible.

At the time, Ji was able to talk her way out of further punishment, but she was informed she would not be forgiven if this happened again.

This would not be Ji’s last encounter with North Korean authorities. She managed the difficult escape from North Korea four times—and was forcibly repatriated back to North Korea by Chinese authorities three times. Forced labor in prison camps awaits those who dare leave the hermit kingdom.

Twice in China, Ji was forced into prostitution, and during one repatriation to North Korea, she returned pregnant. Because so-called “mixed-race” babies are not recognized in North Korea, repatriated defectors who return pregnant endure brutal and heartbreaking forced abortions. Ji was no exception.

Ji continues to tell her story despite how painful it is. Why? She says, “While people are dying and the rest of the world watches that… if they maintain their silence despite knowing what is going on, I don’t think that’s right.”

For nearly two decades, Open Doors’ World Watch List has continuously designated North Korea as the #1 worst persecutor of Christians in the world. The horrifying stories told by escapees like Ji describe unimaginable cruelties under the brutal Kim family’s authority.

The 2020 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report explains, “The (North Korean) government treats religion as a threat…Christians are especially vulnerable because the government views them as susceptible to foreign influence. … Anyone caught practicing religion or even suspected of harboring religious views in private is subject to severe punishment, including arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution.”

On top of the hardships created by the failed communist state, speculation about the status of COVID-19 in North Korea continues. Timothy Cho from Open Doors UK, himself a North Korean defector, says that the hurting economy and widespread malnutrition make North Koreans especially vulnerable to the coronavirus: “North Korea was already presenting with existing issues of ongoing starvation and malnutrition and economic crisis. What’s been happening since this virus lockdown [is] they had closed the borders with China. So, it has radically decreased the amount of imported food and medicine, this is the reason why a lot of items’ prices have gone up to more than four times and some of these imported food and foodstuff are difficult to find in the market.”

North Korea has also experienced historic levels of rainfall this summer. Floods have destroyed hundreds of homes in addition to ruining large rice fields. Due to the fragility of the country’s agricultural system, experts suggest the year’s harvest may be significantly affected, ultimately leading to food shortages.

The secretive and controlling North Korean regime makes it difficult for new information about the country’s deplorable human rights conditions, shoddy health care system, and economic and agricultural failures to reach the rest of the world. But while the situation rarely makes international news, we would be remiss to forget or ignore the plight of North Koreas, including those who suffer for their faith every day.

Please remember faithful Christians in prayer. It takes great courage to practice one’s faith in the type of isolation forced upon North Korean believers. Simple acts like praying or owning a Bible put their very lives at risk. 

Much remains uncertain about the future of the hermit kingdom. Renewed talks between the United States and North Korea remain a possibility in the coming months and years. Meanwhile, rumors still swirl about shifting power dynamics within the regime. However, one thing is certain. No matter what developments occur among regime officials or what deals they try to strike with other nations, the United States and other free countries must do everything in their power to press for religious freedom and human rights in North Korea. Far too many people are suffering, silenced by their oppressive government and unable to speak up for themselves.

China Sanctions U.S. Congressmen, Again

by Arielle Del Turco

August 10, 2020

The Chinese government sought to punish 11 Americans on Monday, accusing them of “behaving badly on Hong Kong-related issues.”

Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) along with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) all made the list of U.S. officials and human rights advocates targeted by the Chinese government. China’s leaders have accused the United States of “interfering” in China’s internal affairs in Hong Kong. But when a global authoritarian power swallows up a free, semi-autonomous city that longs for increased democracy, the U.S. is bound to take notice.

China’s new national security law for Hong Kong has effectively eroded all freedoms that Hong Kongers enjoyed. The new law gives Chinese authorities unlimited control, and more pro-democracy activists are arrested by the day. Activists expect that the people of Hong Kong will soon endure all the same restrictions as those on mainland China, including the absence of religious freedom.

Rubio, Cruz, Smith, and the other individuals singled out by China are all outspoken supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. They called for measures including the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, intended to protect the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who spent months last year protesting China’s encroaching authoritarianism.

China’s new sanctions are expected to be similar to those the U.S. placed on several Chinese leaders directly responsible for eroding Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, including Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, and China’s director of Hong Kong affairs Xia Baolong.

Though China is clearly issuing these sanctions in retaliation for those that the U.S. put on Chinese officials last week, there is a marked difference between the two countries’ sanctions. While the U.S. sanctions Chinese officials for violating the human rights of their own people, the Chinese government sanctions U.S. officials for pointing out those human rights violations.

The Chinese government’s boldness to issue these sanctions is cause for concern. China is increasingly intolerant of anyone who speaks out against its obvious human rights abuses, and Hong Kongers are not exempt from its wrath.

The freedom-lovers of Hong Kong now feel they cannot speak for themselves. The evidence suggests that assessment is accurate. Jimmy Lai, the publisher of a popular pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, was arrested Monday. The national security law imposed on Hong Kong made it illegal to promote democratic reform. For the people of Hong Kong, it is no longer safe to publicly disagree with the Chinese government.

The U.S. politicians and officials raising concerns about how the Chinese government treats its own people have clearly struck a nerve. Last month, Rubio, Cruz, Smith, and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback were officially banned from entering China for their work to address human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

As China seeks to crack down on international criticism, U.S. government officials and activists should stand their ground and continue to be the voice for freedom-loving Hong Kongers. Now more than ever, those in free countries must speak out on behalf of those longing for freedom who are now rendered voiceless by the tight grip of Chinese suppression.

USAID Does a World of Good for Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco , Arielle Leake

August 6, 2020

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator John Barsa knows the importance of religious freedom firsthand. Barsa is half Cuban, and his Catholic family fled Cuba for reasons which included religious repression under communism. As a result, he knows how detrimental it is when a country suppresses religious belief.

At a recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) event, Barsa made clear that promoting religious freedom is a priority for USAID. He boldly stated, “We will not shy away from calling religious persecution for what it is. No one gets a free pass for this.”

The USCIRF event explored how USAID plans to implement President Trump’s recent executive order on advancing international religious freedom. The order established a strong stance on furthering religious liberty around the world and laid out a concrete plan for progress.

USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin noted that “Since 2017 the Trump administration has made religious liberty one of its highest priorities.” Tony Perkins, USCIRF Vice Chair, added that he is “very encouraged by the people he [the president] has put in place to enforce the order.”

The order expands mandatory international religious liberty training to include more government officials, ensures the integration of religious liberty into American diplomacy, and requires the utilization of economic tools to promote religious liberty, among other provisions. It also requires the State Department and USAID to provide comprehensive action plans within 180 days of the order’s issuance.

USAID has already done much to further the cause of religious liberty. This order and the minimum of $50 million it allots will assist them in furthering that goal. Examples of USAID’s work include everything from partnering with the Greek Orthodox Church to provide job training for religious and ethnic minorities in Syria, to protecting minority religious groups in Nigeria from the atrocities committed by Boko Haram.

In Iraq, many Yazidis and Christians who were targets of religious persecution are still reluctant to return home. This week marks six years since the ISIS genocide against the Yazidi people, and many Yazidis remain displaced, living in crowded refugee camps because they do not feel safe enough to return home. USAID is committed to the vital work of ensuring these religious minorities are safe in their own homeland, eliminating the need for them to flee again.

USAID programs are aimed at preventing mass atrocities such as genocide and empowering “countries along their journey to self-reliance.” Barsa said that USAID recognizes “when governments suppress freedom of religion, they prevent entire segments of society from making meaningful contributions to their country’s political and economic development.”

USAID has begun a new partnership initiative bringing a positive change to their approach. The goal of this initiative is to expand the organization’s base by working with more community-based organizations. This involvement with organizations at the grassroots level will allow USAID to gain more of a cultural understanding of the best ways to promote religious liberty in each area. Barsa calls this approach “good government” because it allows USAID to work with people in the community who know what is going on. In the end, it will lead to more effective assistance and hopefully yield significant results.

The American people can be proud of the generous aid we provide to communities in need around the world. Money is a powerful tool, and when used for good, it can make a world of difference.

The good work that USAID is doing is rarely reported in the media, but it deserves attention and appreciation. President Trump’s executive order on advancing religious  freedom, in addition to the new programs being implemented, such as the partner initiative, will make USAID’s work more potent and will promote the freedom for all people to believe as they choose.

Arielle Leake is a Policy & Government Affairs intern focusing on religious liberty.

Remembering ISIS’ Yazidi Genocide, Six Years Later

by Arielle Del Turco

August 3, 2020

Six years ago today, ISIS invaded the Sinjar region in northern Iraq, the quiet homeland of the Yazidi people. It only took a few hours for ISIS to seize Sinjar City and kidnap or kill all who were unable to flee in time. Those who did manage to escape ran to Mount Sinjar without food, water, or medical care, with ISIS hot on their heels.

An ancient religious group familiar with being persecuted by their neighbors, Yazidis had lived simple lives in the rural region. But the attacks by ISIS would have long-lasting consequences.

It took U.S. airstrikes to push the ISIS militants back as Kurdish forces made a safe passageway for Yazidis to descend Mount Sinjar later that month. But in the heat well over 100 degrees, hundreds of Yazidis—many of them children and infants—had already died on the mountain despite airdrops with aid from the U.S. and other military forces.

Meanwhile, ISIS attacked Yazidi villages in the surrounding area. Upon capture, the men and women were separated. The men who refused to convert to Islam were rounded up to be shot and killed. Captured women and children often heard the gunfire that killed the men of the village and saw the evidence of mass murder as ISIS fighters returned with their clothes stained by the blood of their husbands, sons, and brothers.

Militants took many of the younger women to be bought and sold as sex slaves. Women too old to enter the slave trade were shot. The region was soon littered with mass graves.

Yazidi children were forcibly converted to Islam. Thousands of boys were forced to become ISIS fighters, tortured and starved in the process. Today, many of these former child soldiers are missing arms or legs lost while fighting for their abductors.

ISIS made no secret of its desire to destroy the religious minority group it called “pagan” through the use of forced conversion, enslavement, and mass killings. The overwhelming evidence of ISIS’ intent to eradicate religious minorities prompted the United States to officially declare the Islamic State attacks on Iraq’s Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities a genocide in 2016.

Thankfully, the terrorists’ genocidal efforts were unsuccessful, and many Yazidis remain to tell the story of their people. Yet, the painful legacy of genocide lingers, and ISIS’ brutal campaign still haunts the survivors.

Today, an estimated 2,800 women and children who were kidnapped by ISIS remain missing. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are still displaced, living in camps with minimal resources. As U.S. officials look to develop policy and foreign aid priorities in the Middle East, every feasible effort should be made to help the survivors of genocide.

August 3, 2014 is now remembered as the day ISIS began its genocide against the Yazidi people. Most days dedicated to commemorating genocides remember atrocities that happened decades or centuries ago. This remembrance day is different because the Yazidi genocide happened a mere six years ago. The horror is still within our recent memory, and the survivors are still in need of help.

ISIS is no longer the focus of the American news cycle, but we would be remiss to forget the victims of genocide so quickly, especially those who are still in need of our help. The effects of ISIS linger. As the international community looks to maintain stability in the Middle East, consideration should be given as to how best to aid and restore the religious communities ISIS worked to destroy.

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