Category archives: Religious Persecution

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?

Burma’s Relentless Abuse of Christians and Rohingya Muslims

by Lela Gilbert

September 9, 2020

Burma’s Christians have long faced ongoing and terrible mistreatment at the hands of the country’s militant Buddhist authorities. In fact, since 1999, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared Myanmar (also known as Burma) a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) because of its violent practices, lawless abuses, and discriminatory treatment of non-Buddhists. Burma’s regime has used fines, imprisonment, forced conversions, starvation, gang rape, and child abuse to oppress Christians.

But Christians aren’t the only ones who suffer in Burma. Muslims are also viciously persecuted.

In 2017,  triggered by a relatively small insurgency, Rohingya Muslims began to face increasing violence and fled by the thousands into neighboring Bangladesh in what many observers have called ethnic cleansing—or even genocide. Still today—three years later—the situation of the Rohingyas continues to fester.

According to USCIRF’s 2020 report, since the violence began—including the clearance operations that Burma’s security forces first launched in October 2016—nearly 725,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, whose refugee population in Cox’s Bazar (see above image) now totals 1.1 million. One refugee told USCIRF that whereas previously the authorities in Burma’s Rakhine State only restricted Rohingya Muslims’ freedoms, since the October 2016 and August 2017 waves of violence “the authorities rape, burn, and kill them.”

On August 25, USCIRF marked the third anniversary of Burma’s Rohingya crackdown:

Three years after the beginning of the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people, the Burmese government has done almost nothing to hold the military accountable or make conditions safe for the Rohingya to return to their homes,” USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza stated. “Refugee camps are not a long-term solution for the Rohingya people. The United States and the international community must reinvigorate and catalyze efforts to permit the Rohingya to return to their home in Burma as full citizens.

At the same time, Voice of America reported, “Burmese leaders still aim to eradicate the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being destroyed. The lives of the remaining 600,000 Rohingya in Burma are under house arrest,” said Tun Khin, a leading Rohingya activist. He explained that the United States has always played a leading role in tackling ethnic crimes, and other countries will follow suit if the United States now stands up for the Rohingya.

It was long hoped that a beloved icon of freedom, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi—who once spent years under house arrest in her Burmese homeland, and whose appeals for peace earned her a Nobel Prize—would speak up now that she serves as “State Counsellor,” Burma’s de facto leader. But tragically, her former international honor has been tarnished.

Arab News has reported widespread international disappointment with Aung San Suu Kyi. She “has so far failed to speak out on the violence, leaving her global reputation in tatters. Rights groups, activists — including many who campaigned for her in the past — and her fellow Nobel laureates Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have condemned her.”

Unfortunately, discrimination against the Rohingya was dramatically aggravated by a militant insurgency within the Rohingya community itself. This insurgency, known as ARSA, had its beginnings far from Southeast Asia. On August 31, 2017, the Chicago Tribune published an AP report about the group’s initial development:

The group was formed last year by Rohingya exiles living in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Crisis Group, which detailed ARSA’s origins in a report last year. It is led by Attullah Abu Amar Jununi, a Pakistani-born Rohingya who grew up in Mecca, and a committee of about 20 Rohingya emigres. ICG says there are indications Jununi and others received militant training in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan.

The insurgents’ first attacks took place in October 2016, when more than a hundred Rohingya men, armed with various weapons, including knives, slingshots, and rifles, attacked police and killed nine officers. In August 2017, the group struck again, attacking a far larger area, which included Buddhist villages, killing many civilians as well as targeting police. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a fierce response by the Burmese authorities, leading to the torching of numerous Rohingya villages and the killing, rape, and displacement of thousands.

The ARSA rebels have since declared a “ceasefire.” However, the damage activated by their insurgency has since resulted in the unending flood of displaced Rohingyas who clearly had nothing to do with ARSA terrorism or any other crimes. Nonetheless their plight seems never ending.

And at the same time, Burma’s Christians also continue to be mistreated and abused.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the four million Christians in Burma make up about 8.2 percent of the mostly Buddhist population. They live in the country’s margins and belong to ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Lahu, and Naga. They experience everything from discrimination to violent abuse.

For example, as USCIRF recently noted:

Beginning in 2018, Burma’s Chinese-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA) has targeted Christians in territory under its control. Under the guise of confronting “religious extremism,” UWSA soldiers interrogated and detained almost 100 pastors; ordered others to leave the region; closed religious schools and churches; destroyed unauthorized churches; banned new church construction; and forcibly recruited Christian students. In late 2018, the UWSA released those detained after they signed a pledge to pray only at home. In December 2019, the UWSA reopened 51 of the more than 100 churches closed with the rest remaining closed.

Tragically for persecuted Christians—and of course for mistreated Rohingyas and other religious minorities in Burma and far beyond—little awaits them but uncertainty, deprivation, and despair. May God have mercy on them all. And may those of us who enjoy religious freedom continue to pray, provide support, and speak out on their behalf.

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.

The NBA Stays Silent on China’s Atrocities While Raking in Billions

by Blake Elliott

August 7, 2020

I grew up playing basketball and have always been a huge fan of the NBA. However, I have recently become extremely disappointed in the NBA and its players for their appalling silence on how the Chinese government is treating Uyghur Muslims.

China’s atrocities against its Uyghur population are nothing new; they have been going on for a while. But the situation has just recently begun to pick up global attention after videos of hundreds of Uyghurs being blindfolded and forced onto trains, presumably to be sent into forced labor and camps, have leaked. This isn’t the only human rights issue on which the NBA has been conspicuously silent; it has a pattern of silence on human rights issues abroad. For example, it has been silent on ESPN’s recent report suggesting that the NBA’s China Academies (located in Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live) abuse their players. The NBA has also been silent while its business partner, Nike, uses Uyghur forced labor to produce shoes. The NBA’s sudden emphasis on “social justice” issues begs the question: why has the organization been silent for so long, and continues to do so, on human rights violations in China?

There are several likely reasons why the NBA has chosen to remain silent on these issues. One is how much money it makes in China. According to recent reports, around 800 million people in China watch the NBA, and the league earns an estimated $5 billion per year in China. The NBA has also signed a $1.5 billion agreement with a Chinese internet company. There is serious money to be made in China, as it is estimated that nearly 20 percent of the league’s revenue will be coming from the country by 2030.

These figures do not even account for the NBA’s business dealings with Nike. In 2015, the league signed a $1 billion deal with Nike, allowing its logo to be on all NBA uniforms. In addition, nearly 300 players have signed agreements with Nike.

Nike’s ties to China are particularly troubling. It is estimated that the Chinese government has forced at least one million Uyghurs into what are essentially labor and “re-education” camps. Leaked Chinese government orders have shown that these camps are meant to break Uyghur lineage, roots, connections, and origins and essentially eradicate them as a people. It has been reported that survivors were electrocuted, waterboarded, beaten repeatedly, and even injected with unknown substances. These atrocities cannot be denied, yet China continues to force Uyghurs to produce nearly eight million Nike shoes in these camps each year. Clearly, Nike is silent on China’s treatment of Uyghurs because they are cheap labor, allowing them to continue profiting billions of dollars each year.

Some United States senators have been attempting to draw attention to this issue. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) recently had a Twitter exchange with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in which he asked Cuban if he would condemn China’s treatment of Uyghurs. Cuban refrained from condemning China and opted to change the subject. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also has been advocating for this issue. In May, he cosponsored the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, but even more recently, he sent a letter to the NBA asking how it would protect its players and employees who choose to speak out against the actions of the Chinese government. The NBA responded to Hawley’s letter simply by saying that it was “unable to respond to this hypothetical question” and that it has long held values of “equality, respect, and freedom of expression.”

Perhaps the league’s biggest star, Lebron James, summed the situation up best by stating that players have freedom of speech, but they have to be careful because of the negative impact that can result from speaking out. It is interesting to note that while Lebron claims that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who tweeted in support of Hong Kong protestors, was not “educated on the situation at hand,” he is evidently not educated on his own sponsor Nike’s practices or what is going on in China.

Clearly, money is more important to the NBA than speaking out against human rights violations in China. The NBA has set a precedent that no one involved in the organization may criticize China. This was made clear when they silenced Daryl Morey’s attempt to offer support to the Hong Kong protesters, and it continues to be made clear by the organization’s silence on the modern-day atrocities that China is committing. It recently came out that NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, donated the max contribution to Joe Biden’s campaign. One can only hope that Biden would not share Silver’s stance on being silent on these atrocities.

It is essential that people understand the atrocities and human rights violations being committed against the Uyghur Muslims in China. People are being sent to what many have called “concentration camps,” and one former NBA employee compared the atmosphere in Xinjiang to “World War II Germany.” Yet Nike, the NBA, and its players continue to be silent on the issue, doubtlessly due to the income they receive in China. This is wrong, and they need to continue to be held accountable.

Pakistan’s Religious Injustice: Prayers and Pressure Needed

by Lela Gilbert

August 5, 2020

Once again, Pakistan is in the news. Unsurprisingly, the news is bad. And even less surprisingly, the latest news from that troubled country centers around religion—more specifically the lack of religious freedom in Pakistan.

This past week, an American citizen was shot dead in Peshawar, and he didn’t die in a dark alleyway or in a terrorist attack. No, according to CNN, “Tahir Ahmed Naseem, 47, died on Wednesday… after a member of the public walked into the courtroom and opened fire in front of the judge, according to officials.”

Naseem, who belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, had been charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under the Pakistan penal code. And before a judge could decide on his fate, he was assassinated by an Islamist thug.

Clearly, blasphemy certainly isn’t a deadly crime in North America. Indeed, during recent violence across the U.S., relentless insults have been hurled at Christians and Christianity, whether in word or deed. Statues of priests and missionaries have been toppled, sanctuaries and religious schools vandalized, and at least one historic mission torched. Meanwhile, verbal abuse of God-fearing Jews is common parlance in anti-Israel protests and on social media.

However, blasphemy in Pakistan is another story. Blasphemy has become a deadly preoccupation of the country’s radical Muslims, whose constitution provides them full opportunity to incite violence and when possible, to imprison or kill anyone accused—most often falsely—of insulting Allah, the Prophet Mohammad, or the Koran, Islam’s religious holy book.

A former member of the Pakistani parliament and my courageous friend and journalist, Farah Ispahani told me,

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become more pernicious and dangerous as the society at large has become more extremist and unwilling to share space with those of other beliefs like Pakistan’s Christians, Hindus and Sikhs – and even those of the same faith, but of different sects like Ahmadi and Shia Muslims. There is still a majority of Pakistanis who will not kill someone who believes or practices differently, but those of other faiths have become fearful of armed jihadi groups, and the madrasahs the killers come from.

Her statement has been confirmed by an article in the New York Times with the headline, “Poor and Desperate, Pakistani Hindus Accept Islam to Get By.” According to the story, in June dozens of Hindu families converted to Islam in a mass ceremony. “What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” one of the new converts candidly told a reporter.

In an interview for the Times report, Ms. Ispahani explained, “The dehumanization of minorities coupled with these very scary times we are living in — a weak economy and now the pandemic — we may see a raft of people converting to Islam to stave off violence or hunger or just to live to see another day.”

Most Christians in Pakistan are unlikely to convert to Islam, but they are more than aware of the risks they face every day. This, not only thanks to the dehumanization they experience, but also in dread of false blasphemy accusations.

Blasphemy accusations can result if a non-Muslim speaks an unkind word against a neighbor or posts a careless insult on social media. But more than often, there’s no real offense to begin with. Such charges can emanate from the lies and libels of jealous neighbors, or from false statements made by mocking adolescents, or even from winning the jackpot at a card game.

Meanwhile, winning a case against false accusations in Pakistan is another story. As the story of Tahir Naseem makes clear, the legal system provides no protection nor opportunity for a fair trial. How did an armed fanatic find his way into Naseem’s courtroom and manage to shoot him dead? It was possible because vigilantes have virtually free reign in Pakistan. Christians accused of blasphemy have as much to fear from fanatical mobs as from unjust judges.

Who can forget the tragic story of Asia Bibi? A simple farmworker whose initial offense was drinking water from a common cup with other berry-pickers, she ended up on death row for nine years on false blasphemy charges. She was eventually freed and fled the country, thanks to a widespread international outcry.

Yet even though she escaped, Asia Bibi’s life was destroyed and her false charges ended up costing the lives of two government officials who tried to defend her. Both prominent politicians, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for Christian minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, were assassinated in 2011 for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and for speaking out in Asia Bibi’s defense.

Pakistan is, indeed, a “country of particular concern,” as re-designated by USCIRF in December 2019, “for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).” Meanwhile, Open Doors listed Pakistan as #5 on its 2020 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians in the world.

So what can we do? We need to make our voices heard. Let’s encourage our legislators, the State Department and the White House to take a firmer hand in negotiating with the radicalized state of Pakistan. Let’s share the facts on social media. Let’s alert our pastors and our Bible study groups.

When it comes to religious freedom, let’s keep the old saying in mind: “Act as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.”

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.

Cruz, Rubio, and Smith Are Banned From China

by Arielle Del Turco

July 13, 2020

A handful of U.S. congressmen woke up to an angry slap on the wrist from the Chinese government on Monday.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback are now banned from entering China, though the full scope of the new sanctions against them have yet to be revealed.

What prompted the giant authoritarian regime to target these lawmakers? Apparently, their work to address China’s many human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, “Xinjiang affairs are China’s internal affairs and the U.S. has no right to interfere in them.”

These congressmen deserve kudos for their work. The fact that China is singling them out to be targeted means their actions to address China’s human rights issues have had an impact. China noticed their efforts and reacted. That is significant, and they should be commended.  

Cruz, Rubio, and Smith have all advocated for and co-sponsored legislation to address China’s religious freedom and human rights violations.

Rubio and Smith introduced the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which was recently signed into law. It is meant to hold perpetrators of abuses against the Uyghur people, including the systematic use of indoctrination camps, accountable for their actions.

Cruz also joined Rubio to introduce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would prevent goods produced by forced labor (suspected to be sourced by China’s brutal system of “re-education” camps) in Xinjiang from entering the United States. This will be an effective measure, and Congress should seek to pass this as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Brownback is a consistently fearless advocate for religious freedom for all people in China. He has long denounced China’s “war on faith,” reminding them “it is a war they will not win.”

The sanctions against these individuals are likely in retaliation for sanctions the U.S. placed on selected Chinese officials last week for their human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims.

But there’s an obvious difference between the sanctions the U.S. and China placed on each other’s officials. While China merely targets U.S. officials for interference in China’s human rights violations, the U.S. sanctioned Chinese officials based on actual human rights violations. 

The sanctioned Chinese officials are directly responsible for developing and enacting the dystopian campaign of repression in Xinjiang. The most high-profile individual targeted is Chen Quanguo. As the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Chen is responsible for building the network of “re-education” camps in which 1-3 million innocent Uyghurs and those other ethnic minorities remain arbitrarily detained. Outside of the camps, facial recognition technology, forced abortions, birth control and sterilizations, and an intense culture fear is used to control the daily lives of Uyghurs.

Chen and the other Chinese officials who were sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, a tool designed to address global human rights violators, deserve to be singled out for their actions. But the Chinese government is not happy about this, so they are lashing out against U.S. politicians.

The reaction of the Chinese government should encourage U.S. leaders to press on as they seek to improve human rights conditions in China. Recent U.S. efforts have struck a nerve, and lawmakers and diplomats should continue to build on that momentum.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is Now a Mosque. What Next?

by Lela Gilbert

July 10, 2020

An outcry from around the world has greeted a Turkish court’s announced decision, permitting Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s regime to convert the ancient Christian church Hagia Sophia—the Church of the Holy Wisdom—into a mosque.

The revered Christian historical site has served as a museum since the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire following WWI and the subsequent secular presidency of Kemal Ataturk. The magnificent building—an architectural marvel—contains some of the most beautiful Christian frescos and mosaics in the world (including the one above). Hagia Sophia remains the most popular tourist site in Turkey and is regularly visited by millions of Christian pilgrims.

The existing church, located in the heart of Istanbul, is a truly sacred space for Christians worldwide. It stands intact as one the most ancient artifacts of early Christian history:

The first church was built at the same location where there had been a pagan temple before. It was Constantius II who inaugurated Hagia Sophia on 15 February 360. From the chronicles of Socrates of Constantinople, we know that the church was built by the orders of Constantine the Great.

That earliest church was torched during rioting; a second Hagia Sophia was inaugurated in 532. Again, violence led to the church’s damage and destruction.

Today’s Hagia Sophia was completed and inaugurated in by Emperor Justinian the Great in 537; the magnificent mosaics—some of the finest in the world—were completed later in the sixth century. It is for both historic and sacred reasons that voices are protesting the Islamization of the holy site. 

On July 10, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) decried the declaration that the ancient church would be converted into a mosque. USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins said: 

USCIRF condemns the unequivocal politicization of the Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder that has for so long stood as a cherished testament to a complex history and rich diversity. Both Christians and Muslims alike ascribe great cultural and spiritual importance to the Hagia Sophia, whose universal value to humankind was reaffirmed with its inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List in 1985.

Just weeks ago, on May 29, Erdogan, who is widely viewed as an aggressive pan-Islamist, celebrated the fifteenth century conquest of Constantinople with festivities centered on Hagia Sophia. It was converted into a mosque when the Byzantine (Christian) army was defeated by the armies of Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire on May 29, 1453.

Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported:

…The program was followed with the recitation of the 48th chapter of the Quran, surah Al-Fath…Erdogan expressed gratitude to all those who did not abandon Hagia Sophia, the heirloom of the conquest.  He stressed it was important to remember the 567th anniversary with prayers and surah Al-Fath.  Erdogan said he had dedicated his life to his beloved Istanbul and noted that if the city was somehow removed from Earth, world history would have to be rewritten. A presentation with the theme of the conquest of Istanbul was performed on a platform in front of the museum. 

For years, Hagia Sophia has been a coveted trophy for Erdogan, who publicly cherishes neo-Ottoman Islamist sentiments. And as of the Turkish court decision on July 10, Erdogan’s goal is likely to be achieved. 

However, there are other complaints besides that of USCIRF. In fact, another significant obstacle may block Erogan’s way—Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Putin proudly—even pretentiously—belongs to the Russian Orthodox church, and represents it globally. And Hagia Sophia has great significance to the Russian Orthodox world community. In fact, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill was quoted just days ago in The Moscow Times stating that he is “deeply concerned” by Turkey’s moves, describing Hagia Sophia as “one of the greatest monuments of Christian culture…”

A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the whole of Christian civilization, and therefore to our spirituality and history,” the Orthodox church leader said. “To this day, for every Russian Orthodox person, Hagia Sophia is a great Christian shrine,” he said, urging the Turkish government to be cautious. He said that altering the current neutral status of the historic building would cause “deep pain” among the Russian people.

Reuters reports that Erdogan has signed an official declaration that Hagia Sophia will, in fact, be converted into a mosque. He has chosen to gamble with his somewhat frayed relationship with Putin as well as with other powers who have ample reason to oppose him.

Will this move successfully fulfill Erdogan’s triumphalist Islamist vision? Or will international reactions—including Russian Orthodox resistance, Greek disfavor, and American disgust—serve as the last straw in global rejection of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dream empire? Time will tell.

The U.S. Just Sanctioned the Mastermind Behind the Uyghur Crackdown

by Arielle Del Turco

July 9, 2020

The U.S. Treasury Department answered the plea of human rights activists on Thursday, imposing sanctions on four key individuals and one Chinese agency responsible for countless atrocities against the persecuted Uyghur Muslim minority in China. This is a major step in the U.S. government’s effort to address religious persecution in China.

The most well-known individual on the sanctions list is Chen Quanguo, often labeled the mastermind of China’s crackdown against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Chen originally gained fame within the Chinese Community Party due to his success in suppressing Tibet through security crackdowns. He was later put in charge of the Xinjiang crackdown, where he utilized the oppressive measures he’d developed in Tibet to control the Uyghur population.

Under Chen’s leadership, a web of internment camps was built in Xinjiang to hold 1-3 million Uyghur Muslims who remain arbitrarily detained. Survivors of the camps report accounts of torture, sexual abuse, and horrific living conditions. Yet, even outside of the camps, Uyghurs don’t escape the abusive grip of Chinese authorities. Facial recognition technology throughout Xinjiang tracks almost every move residents make. Last week, shocking reports indicated that local authorities limit population growth by forcing sterilizations, intrauterine devices, and even abortions on hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women.

Chen is directly responsible for the mass incarceration in Xinjiang, and the sanction against him is more than justified. 

Among a few other individuals targeted by these sanctions is the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, comparable to a police department. This is significant because it targets those who directly enforce China’s draconian policies against the Uyghur people.

The sanctions imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act are one of the more effective tools the U.S. has to address human rights violations around the world. They include freezes on U.S. assets, banning travel to the U.S., and prohibitions on Americans doing business with sanctioned individuals or entities.

Targeted sanctions are sometimes considered largely symbolic. But symbolism is important. Public naming and shaming matters to the Chinese government, which cares about its reputation on the world stage. Individuals who enforce human rights violations around the world should know that the U.S. government will notice and call them out on an individual basis. Global Magnitsky sanctions are important, but they are just one step that should be followed up with many more.

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