U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday slammed China over its repressive policies against Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), while calling on the international community to join Washington in protecting religious freedom.
Speaking at a Vatican conference on religious freedom, Pompeo singled out China as one of the worst perpetrators of abuse against people of faith, particularly in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
He highlighted the case of Zumuret Dawut, a Uyghur mother of three who in April last year was detained for months in a camp, where she was forced to recite Chinese propaganda, beaten for providing food to an ailing fellow prisoner, and injected with unknown drugs.
“All this for the crime of being Muslim, for worshipping her God, for exercising her conscience,” Pompeo told the conference, organized by the U.S. embassy to the Vatican.
While Dawut was released after her Pakistani husband advocated on her behalf, she was first forced to renounce her faith and promise not to speak about what happened to her there, the secretary said, noting that she was later subjected to official monitoring at her home and forced to eat pork, against the dietary restrictions of Islam.
Pompeo said that cases like Dawut’s are examples of what happens when authoritarian governments restrict their citizens’ right to religious freedom.
“When the state rules absolutely, it demands its citizens worship government, not God,” he said. “That’s why China has put more than one million Uyghur Muslims ... in internment camps and is why it throws Christian pastors in jail.”
"When the state rules absolutely, God becomes an absolute threat to authority.”
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
“Today we must gird ourselves for another battle in defense of human dignity and religious freedom,” Pompeo said.
“The stakes are arguably higher than they were even during the Cold War, because the threats are more diverse and more numerous.”
In addition to China, Pompeo also highlighted religious restrictions in Syria, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Myanmar.
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.
Last week, at an event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Dawut gave an account of her detention, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said that the U.N. had failed to hold China to account over its policies in the XUAR and should demand unfettered access to the region to investigate reports of the mass incarceration and other rights abuses against Uyghurs.