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It is widely known that China has been running a Soviet-style program to suppress religious freedom for years. But last month, we received irrefutable evidence of a threat that human rights advocates have long feared:
China’s censorship efforts targeting religion and surveillance programs have now stretched beyond its borders.
In Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony on Capitol Hill on March 25, the Facebook founder confirmed that Chinese government officials used his social media platform to target, surveil and harass Uyghur Muslims in the United States and elsewhere.
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This brazen misuse of democratic platforms to quash dissidents inside and outside of Chinese borders demonstrates why China is one of the greatest threats to religious freedom – the freedom of conscience – in the world today .
China’s genocide against Uyghurs – and the tactics used to censor and punish them – should be a matter of grave concern to people of every faith worldwide. Though one of us is Christian and the other is Muslim, we are jointly speaking out against China’s abuses because a threat to the freedom of one religion is a threat to them all.
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China’s detention of Uyghur Muslims in “reeducation camps” has served as a pilot program for the regime’s blueprint of persecution on religious groups. Christians are being targeted by the same surveillance methods that have already resulted in an estimated minimum of one million Uyghurs imprisoned under circumstances reminiscent of the Holocaust.
My own sister, Gulshan Abbas, a retired medical doctor, was abducted by the Chinese authorities from her home in September of 2018, six days after I spoke out publicly about the Chinese regime’s extrajudicial detainment of Uyghurs in concentration camps. My husband’s entire family had previously disappeared into these camps. To this day, I have not seen proof of life for my sister, though we learned through a third-party source that she was given a harsh prison sentence without trial or evidence of wrongdoing.
These actions by the Chinese authorities are clearly direct retaliation against my choice to exercise my freedom of speech as an American citizen.
Christians are also at risk. China is actively suppressing the free expression of more than 97 million Christians in the country, which is why it ranks at #17 on Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List, a research-based ranking of religious freedom conditions for Christians worldwide. Houses of worship are under increased scrutiny by the CCP, and police regularly raid the homes of those leading and attending online church meetings, driving many to escape the country as religious refugees.
But no one can escape digital authoritarianism. If the international community allows this behavior to continue without consequence, we can only expect China to export its blueprint of persecution further beyond Chinese borders and into emerging surveillance states.
The Facebook attacks signal that American and European citizens are also under China’s radar. We must unite to meaningfully counter the regime’s use of data-based censorship and extortion tactics to force the silence of Uyghur advocates, Han Chinese dissidents, and Christians worldwide.
We urge the United States to back its recent declaration of genocide against Uyghurs by immediately denouncing the cyberattacks carried out by the CCP.
Together we call on free countries to send clear signals to China that this behavior will not be tolerated. We urge the United States to back its recent declaration of genocide against Uyghurs by immediately denouncing the cyberattacks carried out by the CCP.
President Biden has promised to protect the free practice of faith, proclaiming that “ensuring freedom of religion remains more important than ever.” These protections are essential not just for American citizens, but for all people of faith in every country.
Because the United States maintains thriving relationships with states who actively undermine religious freedom for their own citizens, the Biden administration must advocate on their behalf or become complicit in their suffering.
One critical step is to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to coordinate policy in support of religious minorities, including Uyghurs. This appointee should play an essential role in an official visit to Xinjiang, Tibet and other communities facing major religious freedom violations.
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While previous presidents have delayed this appointment, President Biden can set a strong and encouraging precedent by making a quick nomination. Religious freedom advocates have repeatedly asked the president to take this small but significant step, but we have been ignored.
Until China can demonstrate a baseline respect for international human rights, the United States cannot flatter it with compromise. Instead, we must continue to leverage our bargaining power to defend the freedom of all people to choose their own faith – or no faith at all – without harassment or surveillance from government authorities.
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Rushan Abbas is founder and executive director, Campaign for Uyghurs; she is a Uyghur American and human rights advocate. As a student, she participated in pro-democracy demonstrations at Xinjiang University in 1985 and 1988. Since her arrival in the United States in 1989, Abbas has been an ardent campaigner for the human rights of the Uyghur people and has worked closely with members of Congress since the 1990s.
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