CHINA: Religious liberty and “malignant influence” getting worse, USCIRF says

The 2024 USCIRF report notes a deteriorating situation in several countries. “Bitter Winter” remains a trusted source.

by Massimo Introvigne

Bitter Winter(07.05.2024) – Every year, the yearly reports of USCIRF are mandatory reading for those interested in religious liberty throughout the world. The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Its Commissioners are appointed by the President and by Congressional leaders of both political parties.

The 2024 report continues a tradition of excellency. We at “Bitter Winter” are pleased of being consistently referred as a trusted source in these reports. Within the framework of an editorial choice of shorter entries on each country, in the two pages devoted to China eighteen articles from “Bitter Winter” are referenced. We are also referenced as a source for Pakistan and Russia. We are also happy to note that the situation of the Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light, a Shia-derivative group whose story we have told recently, has been mentioned in the USCIRF 2024 yearly report, with reference to its persecution in Algeria and thanks to the work of our friend Willy Fautré and Human Rights Without Frontiers. USCIRF also continued to express its concern about France’s targeting of “religious minorities it pejoratively labels as ‘sects’ or ‘cults.’” Among the final general comments, a mention of the crisis in Japan involving the Unification Church/Family Federation and now also the Jehovah’s Witnesses is, however, missing and would have been appreciated.

While recommending to read the whole report, we summarize here its main findings about China, supporting the conclusion that, “In 2023, religious freedom conditions in China deteriorated.” “Sinicization of religion” is correctly described not as adapting religions to Chinese culture but as “demanding that all major religious groups obey the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ideology and policies. Sinicization requires groups to follow the CCP’s Marxist interpretation of religion, including by altering religious scriptures and doctrines to conform to that interpretation.”

In 2023, the report continues, “Authorities demolished and forcibly modified Christian churches and Muslim mosques because of architectural features they deemed ‘foreign.’ In the ethnoreligious minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, sinicization entailed forced assimilation of local populations that threatened their religious and cultural identities.” In XinjiangXi Jinping personally “vowed to strengthen repressive policies and continue sinicizing Islam in Xinjiang. Authorities continued to detain and imprison Uyghurs. According to reports, some became critically ill in custody while others died in prison or shortly after release. The government continued to subject Uyghurs to forced labor, including in prisons. Authorities heavily surveilled and prevented Uyghurs from fasting during Ramadan and rebranded Xinjiang as a tourist destination.” Outside XinjiangHui Muslims, once tolerated as friendly to the regime, were also subjected to increasing restrictions.

In Tibet, “Authorities increased surveillance and security measures on Tibetan Buddhists, restricting their peaceful religious activities, arresting and imprisoning them for engaging in such activities and possessing the Dalai Lama’s portraits or teachings, and placing them in ‘political re-education’ camps to prevent self-immolation. Some Tibetan Buddhist monks died in prison. The government separated one million Tibetan children from parents, putting them in state-run boarding schools to forcibly assimilate them. Some local authorities banned parents from teaching religion to Tibetan children. The government controlled the ordination of Tibetan monks and reiterated its intent to interfere in the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation and appoint his successor.”

The report also notes that, “In September, the government implemented its new Measures for the Management of Religious Activity Venues, further restricting religious freedom,” and that the results of the Vatican-China agreement of 2018 continue to appear as negative for the Catholic community in China.

Persecution of Protestant house church Christians also “intensified. The government continued its nationwide crackdown on house churches, detaining, arresting, and sentencing independent Protestants on security and criminal charges. Authorities tortured Christians held in secret detention centers and prisons.”

New religious movements experienced the most severe repression. “The government continued its persecution of Falun Gong and the Church of Almighty God (CAG), often using ‘anti-cult’ provisions under Article 300 of China’s Criminal Law. In 2023, Falun Gong sources documented 6,514 cases of harassment and arrest, 1,190 prison sentences, and 209 deaths because of persecution. Across China, authorities arrested and tortured thousands of CAG members, some of whom reportedly died due to abuses.”

The document also denounced the organized “malignant influence” of China abroad. The Chinese regime “engages in sophisticated and comprehensive campaigns of transnational repression, using a wide array of physical, digital, and psychological tactics to attempt to silence those it views as threats, such as Uyghurs,” Hong Kong pro-democracy expatriates, and asylum seekers who are members of religion persecuted in China.

The USCIRF continues to recommend to the U.S. government and diplomacy to vigorously denounce the assault on freedom of religion or belief in China, as well as in other countries “of particular concern,” a list that also includes, in the American continent, Cuba and Nicaragua. The USCIRF performs an essential function, whose beneficial effects go beyond the United States. It also has enemies, who would like to see it defunded or even eliminated. It needs the support of all friends of religious liberty.

Further reading about FORB in China on HRWF website