Beijing’s new religious freedom restrictions on ethnic minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang amid an anti-terror campaign could trigger new violence in the already restive region, the United States warned Monday, as it released an annual report on international religious freedom.
The U.S. State Department report, aside from listing various religious curbs in China, also identified Myanmar as undergoing a “troubling” trend in which sectarian violence is displacing families and devastating communities.
In launching the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Chinese authorities were harassing Christians, arresting Tibetan Buddhists simply for possessing the Dalai Lama’s photograph, and preventing Uyghur Muslims from providing religious education to their children or fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Speaking at a press conference, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski said the Chinese government “severely restricts the religious practices of Uyghur Muslims.”
He cited the ban by authorities on fasting particularly for civil servants and teachers.
“Broadly targeting an entire religious or ethnic community in response to the actions of a few only increases the potential for violent extremism,” he said.
Beijing in May launched a “strike hard” campaign against “terrorism” in Xinjiang aimed at stamping out attacks the government has linked to religious extremism.
Around 200 people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past year or so, the government says, including in a May 22 bombing in the region's capital Urumqi, which killed 31 people and injured 90, and which prompted the launch of the anti-terror campaign.
Many Uyghurs complain that they are subject to political, cultural, and religious repression for opposing Chinese rule in the resource-rich region.
According to the report, Chinese officials cited concerns over “separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism as a pretext to enforce repressive restrictions” on the religious practices of Uyghur Muslims.
“Authorities often failed to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities,” the report said.
“It remained difficult to determine whether particular raids, detentions, arrests, or judicial punishments targeted those seeking political goals, the right to worship, or criminal acts.”
Local authorities reportedly fined individuals for studying the Quran in unauthorized sessions, detained people for “illegal” religious activities or carrying “illegal” religious materials, and stationed security personnel in and around mosques to restrict attendance to local residents, the report said.
China reportedly sought the forced repatriation of ethnic Uyghurs living outside the country, many of whom had sought asylum because of religious persecution, the report said, adding that in some cases third countries complied with Chinese requests, which reportedly led to the imprisonment and torture of returnees.
According to the report, government respect for and protection of religious freedom in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas of China were “poor,” with widespread official interference in religious practice—especially in Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.
It said that authorities prosecuted family members and colleagues of Tibetans who self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule on charges of “intentional homicide.”
Local authorities also used a variety of means, including administrative detention, to punish members of unregistered religious and spiritual groups, such as house churches and Falun Gong, the report said.
The State Department has designated China as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) since 1999. CPC states are considered among the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.
Myanmar, or Burma, has also been designated a CPC since 1999 and, despite significant democratic reforms since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power from the military regime in 2011, continued to impose severe limitations on religious freedom, the report said.
Malinowski said that those who are resistant to change in Myanmar have sought to hold back progress by focusing national attention on issues of religious differences.
“In [Myanmar], if you fear or oppose your country’s forward political progress, you’re probably not going to convince too many people to be against democracy,” he said.
“But you might get somewhere by trying to divide people across religious and racial lines, focusing political discourse on issues such as interfaith marriage and religious conversion.”
He cited the example of the monks-led “969” movement, which claims Myanmar’s minority Muslims are threatening the Buddhist majority, saying it was fueling “anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in a country that has had a long tradition of different communities living together.”
Rights groups say Muslim Rohingyas in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have borne the brunt of bloody communal violence that has left more than 280 people dead and tens of thousands displaced since 2012.
The report also cited “policies prohibiting or impeding Muslim land ownership in some areas,” as well as reports of local government officials participating in anti-Muslim discrimination and failing to stop violence in Rakhine state.
In Vietnam, “individuals and congregations of multiple faiths reported harassment, detentions and surveillance throughout the year,” Malinowski said.
“Many requests by religious groups for registration remained unanswered or were denied, usually at the provincial or village levels,” the report said.
It said that several religious groups reported abuses, with a “particularly high number of reports” of beatings, arrests, detentions, and criminal convictions coming from groups in the Central and Northwest Highlands.
The State Department included Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2004 but removed it from the blacklist two years later and has since ignored repeated calls by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) to reinstate the country’s designation.
The report said that while the constitution and some laws and policies in Laos protect religious freedom, “enforcement of these laws and policies at the district and local levels was mixed.”
It cited reports of attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, detention, and assaults in detention, and said that, while the law does not recognize a state religion, government financial support and promotion efforts “elevated the status of Buddhism.”
“District and local authorities in some of the country’s 17 provinces continued to be suspicious of non-Buddhist or non-animist religious groups and occasionally displayed intolerance for minority religious groups,” it said.
This was especially true in the case of Protestant congregations, “whether or not officially recognized,” the report said.
In North Korea, which has been designated a CPC since 2001, “the government continued to severely restrict religious activity,” except for some officially recognized groups tightly supervised by the government, the report said.
It cited reports which indicated that religious persons who engaged in proselytizing in the country and those in contact with missionaries were arrested and subjected to extremely harsh penalties, “including executions.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the North “stands out again … for its absolute and brutal repression of religious activity.”
“Members of religious minorities are ripped from their families and isolated in political prison camps. They are arrest and beaten, tortured and killed,” he said, adding that some individuals have reportedly been arrested for “doing nothing more than carrying a bible.”
North Korea says it plans to prosecute two American tourists that it detained earlier this year, accusing them of "perpetrating hostile acts."
The North Korean government had previously said it was holding the two U.S. citizens, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, but hadn't said what it planned to do with them.
North Korea is currently holding three American citizens, including Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor in 2013 by a court that said he had carried out acts aimed at bringing down the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.