ALTHOUGH the world’s media are focused on the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan, we should not forget the ongoing Chinese state atrocities against Uyghur and other, mostly Muslim, minority groups in Xinjiang province. More than one million people are imprisoned in detention camps: the largest mass incarceration of an ethno-religious group since the Nazi Holocaust.
A conference at Newcastle University last week on “The Xinjiang Crisis” heard compelling evidence that crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place. Sadly, the Churches in the UK have been slow to understand, speak out, pray for, or act on this issue.
Research by journalists, lawyers, academics, and human-rights organisations has documented extensive abuses since the launch of China’s “de-extremification policy” in 2017. People are sent to the camps for even the slightest hint of Islamic piety or identification with their ethnic culture. Once incarcerated, they are forced to deny their religion, eat pork, learn Chinese, and profess loyalty to the Communist State. Torture is routine, with women are subjected to systematic rape.
Outside the camps, Uyghurs are subjected to forced labour, and the most coercive, high-technology surveillance state in the world monitors their everyday actions and communication. Thousands of mosques and holy places have been destroyed. Children are separated from parents, and sent to boarding schools to Sinicise their language, dress, and minds. To “end the dominance of the Uyghur ethnic group”, as a Chinese local official chillingly put it, the Xinjiang state has pursued a policy of forced abortion and mass sterilisation. This has led to plunging birth rates, which many experts regard as slow-motion genocide.
WHILE undeniably tragic, why should the fate of this distant Muslim minority matter to British Christians? The Bible holds that all humans are created imago dei and worthy of inherent respect. True religious practice, Isaiah tells us, is “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke”. How can we not be concerned?
Further, the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression of the Uyghurs has wider implications for religious freedom. Beijing’s methods in Xinjiang are increasingly being used against Christians throughout China. Beyond that, its surveillance technology, trialled in Xinjiang, is being exported to other authoritarian regimes.
The danger of China using its geopolitical clout to limit religious freedom around the world is considerable. For example, in June, Ukraine signed up to a United Nations call on China to allow independent human-rights investigators into Xinjiang. China immediately threatened to suspend delivery of 500,000 Covid-19 vaccines — and Ukraine promptly withdrew its signature.
Closer to home, in March, a number of UK academics, lawyers, and politicians who had spoken out for the rights of the Uyghurs were formally sanctioned by Beijing. What is happening in Xinjiang has global consequences for religious freedom.
SO, WHAT can we do? To begin with, churches should be praying constantly and earnestly, “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives” (1 Timothy 2.2), for all those suffering, and for the Church and its witness in China.
Second, we need to speak out. As evidenced by its furious reaction to global criticism, China’s rulers hate adverse publicity.
Finally, we should take action. We can join consumer boycotts of Western and Chinese firms and industries resourcing or benefiting from surveillance, incarceration, and forced labour in Xinjiang. We must urge our Government to hold China to account diplomatically and politically, and to oblige UK companies to undertake due diligence in their dealings with Chinese businesses. Many churches have good anti-slavery policies, which should be used to pursue disinvestment from firms profiting from Uyghur slave labour.
Unfortunately, the UK’s Churches have fallen short in all these respects. In April, Parliament voted to recognise that China was committing genocide in Xinjiang (News, 30 April). In contrast, the same month, a General Synod debate on freedom of religious belief was disappointing (News, 30 April). Although the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos spoke about the systematic persecution of the Uyghurs, the most senior Anglican leaders did not address their plight. Although some bishops have spoken publicly about the issue, the situation is so grave that it demands a clearer and louder voice from the Churches, notably the archbishops.
It may be that church leaders do not want to antagonise China and worsen the plight of local believers. This is an understandable but mistaken policy. In effect, it subjects us to Chinese censorship and compromises our witness, and for little real gain.
The Psalms describes God as the one who “pours out contempt on nobles”, but “lifts the needy from affliction”. In our prayers, words, and actions over the Xinjiang crisis, we should seek to do the same.
Dr Nick Megoran is Professor of Political Geography and Honorary Chaplain to Newcastle University.