China harshly ramped up its repression of religious groups operating outside of state control last year, jailing and harassing the leaders of Christian churches and throwing thousands of ethnic Uyghur Muslims suspected of “religious extremism” into re-education camps, the U.S. State Department said in an annual report released on Tuesday.
In China, the State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report said, “there continued to be reports of deaths in detention of religious adherents,” as well as reports of the abuse, jailing, and torture of followers of both registered and unregistered groups.
In northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, authorities restricted Uyghurs’ participation in the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan and other religious observances, the report said, adding that “hundreds of thousands” of Uyghur Muslims have been forced into camps scattered across Xinjiang.
“Extensive and invasive security and surveillance practices have [also] been instituted,” the report said.
Since April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but rights groups and exiled Uyghur activists estimate that between 800,000 and 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017.
'A very troubling country'
In Tibetan areas of China, meanwhile, Buddhist practitioners were subjected last year to forced disappearance, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their beliefs, the State Department said.
“Travel restrictions hindered traditional religious practices and pilgrimages,” the report said, adding that repression increased around “politically sensitive events,” including the birthday of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
“Authorities often justified their interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by claiming the religious institutions [had] engaged in separatist or pro-independence activities and undermined the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said China, a State Department-designated Country of Political Concern since 1999, remains “a very, very troubling country on religious freedom,” noting especially the situation in Tibet and the numbers of Uyghurs now being held in “re-education camps.”
“That was a concept you thought was gone decades ago and [is being] experienced in a growing amount,” Brownback said. “That’s why we put it forward in this report for greater action to take place.”
Meanwhile in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, government troops and others engaged last year in “large-scale abuses,” including killings and rape, against Rakhine state’s Rohingya Muslim ethnic group and ethnic minority communities in other parts of the country, the State Department report said.
“Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being based solely on religious identity,” the report said, adding however that religious minorities including Christians and Hindus elsewhere in Myanmar reported restrictions on religious practice and travel throughout the year.
Myanmar’s government and army have vehemently denied allegations that security forces indiscriminately killed, tortured, and raped Rohingya and burned down their homes, despite statements by the U.N. and others that the crackdowns, which together drove between 700,000 and 800,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh, amounted to ethnic cleansing.
The destruction of religious texts and property and the refusal by authorities to grant permits for the building or renovation of religious structures were also reported during the year, the State Department said.
The State Department had asked for permission last year to go into Rakhine state to inspect conditions for itself, Brownback told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday.
“I had asked for access into Myanmar and to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi [and] to go into northern Rakhine State, where the problems have been most acute, although there’s plenty of problems in various places of Myanmar. And I was denied those accesses,” Brownback said.
“I don’t think you’ve seen progress taking place there in the country,” Brownback added.
“If anything, the administration there is doubling its effort and going after the [majority Christian] Kachin in the northern part of the country, and the refugee numbers are increasing in the northern part now of Burma,” Brownback said.