US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has accused the Chinese Communist Party of being “at war with faith,” and warned that its policies risk stoking extremism.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Hong Kong on Friday, the ambassador, a former US senator, said in recent years there had been increasing discrimination against Catholics, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists across China.
“What does the Chinese Communist Party have to fear from its faithful people? Why can’t it trust its people with the Bible? Why can’t Uyghur children be named Mohammad? Why can’t the Tibetans choose and venerate their own religious leaders like they have for more than a thousand years?” Brownback said.
China was registered along with 10 other nations as a “countries of particular concern” by the US in December 2018 under the International Religious Freedom Act, due to “systematic, ongoing (and) egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Brownback’s speech joins a growing tide of international condemnation of Beijing following reports that more than a million Muslim majority Uyghur have been detained by authorities in massive camps in the western region of Xinjiang.
The Chinese government originally denied the existence of the camps but now says they are “vocational training centers” designed to combat Muslim extremism in the province.
But former detainees and human rights activists have offered a different story, one of mass re-education inside the camps, physical torture and death. One former inmate told CNN she saw nine of her fellow detainees die due to the hostile conditions.
Brownback said Friday the detentions of Uyghurs were “arbitrary” and based on their religious practices. “We need to call these camps what they are — they’re internment camps, created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities,” he said.
Contrary to China’s claims, Brownback said the inmates are subject to “physical and psychological torture, intense political indoctrination and forced labor.” Rather than solving an extremism crisis as China alleges, “they are creating one,” Brownback said.
The US ambassador at large also raised concerns over the treatment of Tibetan Buddhists by Beijing as well as China’s large Christian community, who have seen growing repression in the past year.
Brownback isn’t alone in condemning the Xinjiang camps. In February, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry prominently denounced the “torture and political brainwashing” in a statement, asking for the UN to intervene.
US Vice President Mike Pence said in October China was involved in “around-the-clock brainwashing” in the centers.
But despite the tough stance, some US lawmakers have claimed the Trump administration isn’t doing enough to stop the abuses in Xinjiang. A bipartisan group of politicians wrote a letter to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for “meaningful action.”
When asked by journalists, Brownback said the US administration didn’t “discuss internal matters” about possible action against China over Xinjiang. He said his staff had requested access to the camps and be turned down.
But he said he didn’t want to go to the camps just to “get a show,” he wanted to be able to go inside and talk to the inmates freely.
“I get regularly now, every week, list of names of people that are held in prison in internment camps in Xinjiang from concerned family members. Dozens, hundreds of names from people who are seeking just to know what’s happening with their relatives,” he said.
By Ben Westcott