U.S. President Donald Trump met with more than two dozen survivors of religious persecution on Wednesday, including the daughter of a jailed Uyghur professor in China, a Rohingya Muslim who fled state-sponsored violence in Myanmar, and Christians from North Korea, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The unscheduled meeting saw Trump host 27 representatives of groups from 16 nations the White House said have suffered violations of religious freedom, including four people from China, and came as the U.S. State Department is hosting its second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington from July 16-18.
“With us today are men and women of many different religious traditions, from many different countries, but what you have in common is that each of you have suffered tremendously for your faith,” he said in welcoming the survivors, noting that they had collectively endured “harassment, threats, attacks, trials, imprisonment, and torture.”
“Each of you has now become a witness to the importance of advancing religious liberty all around the world … If people are not free to practice their faith, then all of the freedoms are at risk and, frankly, freedoms don’t mean very much.”
Among those Trump met on Wednesday was Jewher Tohti, the daughter of jailed Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti, who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of Uyghurs in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), but was charged with promoting ethnic separatism and handed a life sentence by a Chinese court on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day trial.
Tohti told the president about the region’s network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have detained up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
She said she has no idea how much longer her father will remain in prison.
“I haven’t heard about him since 2017, because that’s when the concentration camps started,” she said.
“Anyone who goes to ask about anybody’s family members’ news will never make their way back to their own homes.”
On Thursday, Tohti said that if she had more time, she would have explained to Trump that she knows trade negotiations are ongoing with China, and that the situation in the XUAR is a very sensitive topic, “but please don't let the [potential for] monetary gains silence your country.”
On Tuesday, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, Tohti had slammed China for its policies in the XUAR, and questioned whether Beijing is qualified to host the 2022 Winter Olympics when Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities remain held in the region’s vast internment camp system.
Her comments preceded a warning from Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi that the U.S. risks losing its moral authority to speak out against violations of religious freedom elsewhere in the world if it does not hold China accountable for its policies targeting Uyghurs in the XUAR, as well as her call for sanctions against XUAR Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo under the Global Magnitsky Act for his role in the persecution.
‘The stain of the century’
On Thursday, high-level U.S. criticism of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs continued at the ministerial event, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling mass incarcerations in XUAR “one of the worst human rights crises of our time” and “truly the stain of the century.”
Vice President Mike Pence also slammed China’s internment camps “where [Uyghurs] endure around-the-clock brainwashing” and survivors have described their experience as “a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.”
Other representatives from China at the White House on Wednesday included Zhang Yuhua, a practitioner of the banned Falun Gong sect, a Tibetan Buddhist named Nyima Lhamo, who called for Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet, and Ouyang Manping, the Christian wife of a jailed pastor from an underground church.
On Thursday, Pence noted that the U.S. is engaged in discussions with China over trade relations, but vowed that whatever comes of the negotiations, “the American people will always stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People’s Republic of China.”
Speaking to a regular press briefing on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang dismissed the characterization of the four Chinese citizens Trump met with as “survivors of religious persecution.”
“There is no such thing as religious persecution in China—Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief in accordance with the law,” he said.
He also labeled the decision to host Falun Gong “cultists” at the White House and at the State Department’s ministerial as “interference in China’s internal affairs,” and urged the U.S. to stop using religious issues as a pretext to do so.
Myanmar and North Korea
The three-day ministerial wrapped up with a statement on China, saying participants were “deeply concerned about China’s escalating, widespread, and undue restrictions on religious freedom.”
“Many members of religious groups in China – including ethnic Uighur, Kazakh and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Falun Gong – face severe repression and discrimination because of their religious beliefs,” said the statement.
Trump also met with Mohib Mullah, one of the more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled across the border to Bangladesh after Myanmar launched a military campaign against their community in Rakhine state in 2017, killing thousands of people.
Ullah told the president that he and many other Rohingya refugees are living in squalid camp conditions, waiting to be allowed to return to their home.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo barred Myanmar armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and three other senior military commanders and their close relatives from entering the U.S., because of their “responsibility for gross human rights violations, including in extrajudicial killings in northern Rakhine State, Burma, during the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.”
Ullah was joined by Reverend Samson, an ethnic Kachin from a Baptist congregation in northern Myanmar, who has also faced persecution in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar because of his Christian faith.
Vice President Pence on Thursday said that the U.S. had placed visa sanctions on Myanmar military officials because Myanmar’s government has failed to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks against the Rohingya and make clear that “these mass atrocities must never happen again.”
The government of Myanmar, which the U.S. officially calls Burma, has largely denied that its forces committed atrocities against the Rohingya that United Nations investigators, rights groups, and some nations say amounted to ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide.
“So far, our words of admonition have seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Pence said, adding that the U.S. “will hold them accountable.”
Pence also slammed North Korea for its treatment of people of faith, noting that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has said violations there “constitute crimes against humanity … the gravity, scale, and nature of which has no parallel in the contemporary world.”
On Wednesday, Ju Ilyong, a Christian defector from North Korea, was among the 27 survivors who met with Trump, and he told the president that many of his family members who were unable to escape the regime are being held in a political prison camp or had been executed because they worshipped in underground churches.
Pence vowed that as Trump continues to pursue denuclearization of North Korea, “the United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.”
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.