Author archives: Arielle Del Turco

Turkey Is Accused of War Crimes in Syria. Here Are Three Questions Trump Should Ask Erdogan.

by Arielle Del Turco

November 12, 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is headed to the White House to meet with President Trump on Wednesday, November 13. Members of Congress have objected to this meeting due to the ongoing Turkish incursion into Northeast Syria, which has taken a significant toll on civilians and religious minorities, including Christians. Erdogan’s arrival on Wednesday is expected to be greeted by protests. In 2017, a small group protesting Erdogan’s visit in D.C. was assaulted by members of Erdogan’s security detail who overran D.C. police. In response to this incident two years ago, Rep. Dan Crenshaw is leading a joint letter urging the State Department and D.C. police to ensure that Erdogan and his security detail “are aware of and understand that Americans enjoy First Amendment rights to assembly and speech.”

It’s a controversial decision to meet with Erdogan, yet this gives President Trump the perfect opportunity to confront the authoritarian leader and pressure him to cease his country’s ongoing abuses in Northeast Syria. There’s still time to set the agenda of the two leaders’ November 13 meeting. To that end, here are three questions President Trump should pressure Erdogan to answer.

1) How will you rein in the Syrian militias, which the Turkish military is currently using in the offensive into Northeast Syria and who have committed documented war crimes and other violations?

Turkish-backed militias are doing a lot of the dirty work in Turkey’s incursion into Northeast Syria. In the ongoing assault in Northeast Syria, Turkish-backed forces have executed Kurdish prisoners, ambushed and brutally killed a female Kurdish politician, and killed many unarmed civilians. Videos and photos have surfaced showing Turkish-backed militia members executing civilians by the roadside—and U.S. officials confirmed their authenticity.

Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers is shocked by their actions. He called them “a wicked force unleashing terror. You know we’ve seen them mutilate girls, torture civilians, yell ‘Allah Akbar’ just like we saw ISIS do against us. So, I would say they’re a wicked scourge being used by Erdogan to torment the people here. And they’ve got to be stopped.”

These extremist groups are funded by and are under the command of the Turkish military. Their grotesque actions are beyond unacceptable. Turkey is a NATO ally; they shouldn’t be funding extremists to commit atrocities against civilians in a neighboring country. President Erdogan should be made to answer for the actions of these forces, and President Trump is well within his rights to demand that Erdogan rein in these militias.

2) What are you going to do to fulfill your promise to protect Christians and other religious minorities that have been harassed and victimized by Turkish-backed Syrian militias?

Christians and other religious minorities have been targeted for attack by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed forces. CBN News reported that Turkish-backed forces are marking Christian homes with the Arabic letter “N” to label them as Christian for the purpose of confiscating their belongings, much like ISIS did.

Turkish bombardments have even appeared to target Christian sites and neighborhoods, including the largest Christian neighborhood in Qamishli, setting houses on fire and killing several civilians. Some Christians in Syria fear that the Turkish incursion will ultimately lead to the extinction of Christianity from the region as the situation becomes unlivable. This is especially disturbing, given that the region Turkey is attacking is led by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, where (up until a month ago) religious minorities were protected and given equal political rights—an anomaly in the Middle East.

A statement from the White House on October 9 claimed, “Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.” Turkey has clearly failed to deliver on this promise. Erdogan’s government assured the U.S. that they would protect Christians and religious minorities—President Trump can remind him of that.

3) How will you ensure further war crimes aren’t committed by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed forces?

Credible reports indicate that Turkey is guilty of war crimes committed within the last month. A statement from Amnesty International noted “damning evidence of war crimes” committed by Turkish forces in Syria. Kumi Naidoo of Amnesty International said, “Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians.” Dave Eubank also attests to war crimes committed by Turkish-backed forces. “Oh yes, killing prisoners, killing civilians, chasing people out of their homes, torture. Definitely.”

Evidence also suggests Turkish-backed forces have used munitions loaded with white phosphorus—a chemical that does enormous damage and can kill. Civilians, including children, appear to have been attacked by the chemical weapon. Kurdish General Mazloum has accused Turkey of ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people to later replace them with Arab Syrians in the region they invaded, changing the demography of the region.

Turkey needs to answer for its targeting of civilians. U.S. drone feeds appeared to show Turkish-backed Arab gunmen targeting civilians during the invasion of Northeast Syria. Rojava Information Center has reported that Turkish forces targeted civilians fleeing the invasion and bombed a hospital which had to be taken out of service due to Turkish shelling. Erdogan must be made to explain the many reports of civilian causalities, especially after he promised the U.S. that Turkey would protect civilians.

Ultimately, this meeting should not be a simple photo op that Erdogan can use to show that the United States affirms Turkish actions in Northeast Syria. Instead, this is a perfect opportunity for President Trump to press Erdogan on Turkey’s actions and hold Turkey accountable for ongoing atrocities in Syria.

Death Comes to Northeast Syria: The Human Cost of Trump’s Withdrawal of Forces

by Travis Weber , Arielle Del Turco

October 9, 2019

Smoke is billowing from a small town in northeast Syria hit by Turkish airstrikes today, and hundreds of civilians are fleeing, unsure of where they’re headed.

The worst fears of those living under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria are becoming a reality after President Trump made the decision on Sunday to remove U.S. troops from the area. This decision followed a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan and paved the way for an unfolding Turkish military operation into Northeast Syria, which is controlled by the Kurds, who have been faithful U.S. allies.

Why is FRC, focused on our mission to advance faith, family, and freedom, weighing in on this situation far from home?

Because at risk is not just the massacre of our Kurdish allies, the potential resurgence of ISIS, the reputation of the United States, and another major conflict in the Middle East. Also at risk is the destruction of the one place in the Middle East (outside of Israel) where Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis live in peace and religious freedom thrives. Under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, religious minorities in Northeast Syria found protection and equal political rights—an anomaly in the Middle East.

Out of the midst of the Syrian civil war, hope sprang in the form of a federal government system that represents and protects segments of society which are often neglected and abused in the Middle East, including women and the Christian minority.

In addition to other religious minorities, Syriac Christians have found safety under the Kurdish-led administration. This is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and they are trying to maintain a presence in the Middle East, the birthplace of the Christian faith. Syriac Christians still speak a dialect of Aramaic today, and Syriac Christian culture is experiencing a renaissance. As Turkish forces move into Northeast Syria, we shouldn’t expect that they will take care of this community. Even in the past few years, Turkey has allied itself with jihadist groups responsible for killing Christians elsewhere in Syria. With the present Turkish incursion, Christians in Northeast Syria face the potential of attack or displacement. It would be tragic to these Christians subjected to abuse or death as a result of Turkish actions, and it would also be tragic to see the loss of a historic Christian presence in this region.

The Kurdish forces that Turkey is attacking have been reliable allies to the Untied States. When the U.S. couldn’t find anyone else willing to fight ISIS, the SDF rose to the occasion, and lost approximately 11,000 fighters in the process. The Kurds feel betrayed by the U.S., and that feeling is understandable. They have been consistent allies, and we abandoned them overnight without warning. This won’t bode well for the next time the U.S. tries to recruit allies in the Middle East.

The successful religious freedom and pluralism found in Northeast Syria is something that we hope to see more of across the Middle East. To watch that newly-flourishing area ransacked by a Turkish authoritarian leader is disheartening. If the United States wants to see the prime example of religious freedom in the Middle East continue, it should continue to support our Kurdish allies.

It is difficult to watch these events unfold today. There have already been reports of civilian casualties, including Christians who were killed by the Turkish strikes.

As this situation develops, we need to be praying for the protection of the people of Northeast Syria, and that any attempted oppression or slaughter would be thwarted. We must also pray that God would give President Trump the wisdom to make the right decisions, and that he would ensure security for Syria’s Northeast.

Senate Condemns China’s Abuses Against Religious Minorities

by Arielle Del Turco

September 13, 2019

The Chinese regime’s gross human rights violations against Uyghurs were recognized by the U.S. Senate late Wednesday night with the passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. The measure couldn’t come at a more critical time as the Uyghur crisis continues to deteriorate. In what one U.S. official has called China’s “war on faith,” the Chinese government is responsible for a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs, a Turkic, mostly Muslim ethnic group.

China has used a variety of measures to suppress the Uyghur community. The government monitors social media, and arrests Uyghurs for information found on their phones, including simply having religious content on them. It is estimated that China has forcibly detained at least 880,000 and possibly more than 2 million Uyghurs who are detained in what China calls “re-education” camps. Uyghurs at these camps are indoctrinated with Chinese Communist Party propaganda designed to pressure them to abandon their Muslim faith and their unique culture. Some detainees who have been released describe their experience being tortured in the camps.

This bill is the first piece of legislation from any nation that specifically responds to the Uyghur crisis. The provisions of this act will require U.S. federal agencies and foreign policy institutions to report on the Uyghur crisis, and how it impacts U.S. citizens and national security. Formal and routine U.S. recognition of the horrors of China’s treatment of Uyghurs will send a powerful message to Beijing—that the U.S. will not ignore the atrocities taking place in the Uyghur region, and that we will continue to highlight Chinese human rights violations on the world stage.

The Chinese government is already getting the message. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson responded yesterday to this bill passing in the Senate. Spokesperson Hua Chunying expressed China’s opposition to the passage of this bill and to U.S. criticisms of China’s Xinjiang policies. Though she accused the U.S. of misrepresenting the human rights situation in China, we know that Chinese leaders have a long track record of lying about their actions in the Uyghur region. Regardless of the spin from Chinese officials, their hostile response indicates that they have already felt pressure from this bill, which means it has done exactly what it was meant to do.

While the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act has passed the Senate, its companion bill in the House of Representatives is still in committee. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) demonstrated great leadership in getting this bill passed in the Senate. In the House, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) is leading the charge on this bill. As we commend the Senate’s action on this issue, the House should take note and work to swiftly pass the House version of this bill. It is vital that Congress take this step to hold China accountable for their egregious human rights abuses.

Religious Freedom Is at Stake in Hong Kong. We Must Not Look the Other Way.

by Arielle Del Turco

August 27, 2019

Hong Kong needs to win this fight. Or else it will soon be like China.” This was one student’s answer when asked why he participates in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong even as the risks increase.

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have captured international attention and their movement isn’t fading away, even in the 12th week of protests. Last Sunday, 1.7 million Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest in the rain—for reference, the total population is only 7.3 million. 

The protests were sparked by a proposed extradition bill that would allow people from Hong Kong to be extradited to China. Critics of the bill believe that it would provide a legal excuse for China to pick up anyone from Hong Kong and detain them in mainland China, where the legal system is corrupt and judges follow the orders of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The protests have since evolved to represent a larger pro-democracy movement as the city fears the possibility of mainland China’s encroaching influence in Hong Kong.

Those fears are not unfounded. Hong Kong has thrived with a high degree of autonomy since the city was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle. It currently enjoys an independent judiciary, more protection of basic rights, and fewer restrictions on freedom of expression than mainland China. Churches in Hong Kong experience the same level of religious freedom experienced in the West, and Christian activists have been at the forefront of Hong Kong protests. 

Those in mainland China, meanwhile, are subject to the tight control of the Chinese Communist Party and human rights abuses. Nothing is sacred to the CCP—including religion. The CCP allows legal status for some religious organizations, but these state-sanctioned churches encounter government interference. Minors and college students have been barred from entering all churches. The government has also started to install surveillance cameras in churches.

Last year, the Chinese government started a “thought reform” campaign to promote what they call “Chinese Christianity.” The plan includes retranslating the Bible to find its similarities with socialism. China is fine with allowing Christianity as long as it can be used as a platform to advance the Communist party.

House churches, which lack government approval, are completely shut down by the government.

In 2018 alone, it is estimated that 100,000 or more Christians were arrested for violating China’s strict regulations for religious affairs.

Unlike their neighbors in mainland China, Hong Kongers have free access to information. They know what’s going on in China. And Christians in Hong Kong fear that if the Chinese government exerts more control over Hong Kong, they will begin to face the same religious freedom restrictions Christians face there.

Across the bay from Hong Kong, in China’s Shenzhen province, hundreds of armed Chinese police have been deployed in a show of force. Chinese officials warned that Beijing will forcibly suppress the protests if they become more chaotic. If China’s People’s Armed Police crackdown on Hong Kong protests, it would signal a significant loss of Hong Kong’s autonomy. To silently allow the encroachment of Chinese government control into Hong Kong would be to watch a regime that abuses human rights take over a flourishing city. And that would be a tragedy. As Hong Kongers cry out for democracy, their pleas should not fall on deaf ears.

There is a deep longing within mankind to be free. People throughout the ages have been willing to fight and die for their freedom. Yet, the communist-led Chinese regime believes its residents are fundamentally materialistic and can therefore be easily manipulated and controlled. In defiance of this, Hong Kong is now in its 12th consecutive week of protests.

U.S. leaders shouldn’t ignore this issue. Ultimately, we don’t want to see Hong Kong subject to the same human rights and religious freedom violations seen elsewhere in China. At the very least, that means sending the message to China that the U.S. would not look kindly upon Chinese intervention in Hong Kong. There’s too much at stake if we look the other way.

Pakistan’s “Blasphemy” Laws are Killing Religious Minorities. 72 Other Countries Are Following Suit.

by Arielle Del Turco

July 31, 2019

Faraz Pervaiz, a Pakistani Christian refugee in Bangkok, is pleading for help from Western governments as he tries to flee from the multitude of death threats he is currently receiving. Pervaiz is the victim of a major threat to religious freedom around the globe—blasphemy laws. In 2013, Pervaiz began speaking out in defense of Christians after a mob attack on a Christian neighborhood in Pakistan. He led protests that demanded police intervention and he published works online that were critical of Islamic theology and its application in the government of Pakistan. That’s more than enough to be convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan, where it is a crime to “outrag[e]” or “wound[] the religious feelings of any person” by utterance, sound, or gesture.

Pervaiz’s outspokenness forced him to flee Pakistan in 2014 following a video he posted online in which he and his father criticized Islamic teachings and the Pakistani government. After he had fled the country, a Muslim cleric accused him of blasphemy and the government filed a criminal case against Pervaiz following outside pressure to do so.

A Global Problem

However, Pakistan’s government is not the only problem. Political parties and average people continue to rally around these blasphemy laws and have shown a willingness to punish those who violate them even if the accused are acquitted by the courts. Parvaiz knows this all too well. Islamic political parties have offered 10 million Pakistani rupees (around $82,000) to anyone who would kill Parvaiz. Mullahs have also led demonstrations where the crowds were encouraged to chant: “There is only one punishment for insulting the Prophet. Sever the head from the body! Sever the head from the body!” As a refugee in Bangkok, Pervaiz still hasn’t found safety. His address in Thailand was recently revealed in a video posted to social media, prompting a new round of death threats. Pervaiz is now pleading for help from Western governments—before it’s too late.

While a stunning 72 countries (37 percent of the world) have blasphemy laws, Pakistan stands at the forefront as an example of a country where blasphemy laws are regularly used to harm religious minorities. Earlier this month, news broke that two Pakistani teenagers were arrested for receiving “blasphemous sketches” to an app on their phone—a charge they denied. One illiterate Pakistani couple is facing the threat of death row after they were charged with “insulting the Quran” and “insulting the Prophet” via text message.

Opposition to blasphemy laws is an issue that is starting to gain traction among religious freedom advocates, and deservedly so. At the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, 27 countries co-signed a joint statement of concern that calls on countries which have blasphemy, apostasy, or other laws that restrict freedoms of religious expression to repeal them.

A Need for International Attention

Recognizing the significance of this global issue, Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Mark Meadows introduced a resolution last week in the U.S. House of Representative which calls for the “global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostacy laws.”

The resolution cites U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) findings of “egregious examples of the enforcement of blasphemy laws and vigilante violence connected to blasphemy allegations in Pakistan, where blasphemy charges are common and numerous individuals are in prison, with a high percentage sentenced to death or to life in prison.” The legislation also notes USCIRF’s knowledge of 40 individuals who are serving life sentences or are on death row for their blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

With this resolution, the House would recognize that “blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws inappropriately position governments as arbiters of religious truth and empower officials to impose religious dogma on individuals or minorities through the power of the government or through violence sanctioned by the government.” This is a statement that deserves to be heartily endorsed by the U.S. House and a sentiment that needs to be heard by governments that insist on keeping these laws.

Government Weaponization of Religious Dogma Must End

This past year saw the acquittal and release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian farmworker accused of insulting Islam. In what may have been the most well-known blasphemy case to the Western world, religious freedom advocates rejoiced at news of Bibi’s safe arrival in Canada when she was reunited with her family. While this was a tremendous victory, Bibi isn’t the only religious minority to suffer under Pakistani blasphemy laws—many continue to feel the burden of these laws.

The widespread use of blasphemy laws to suppress the expression of religious beliefs (or, the misuse of blasphemy laws to settle unrelated disputes) is alarming. The efforts put forth by the co-signatories of the ministerial’s statement of concern, as well as Rep. Raskin and Rep. Meadows, are critical. Pakistan (and other countries that maintain blasphemy laws) should feel the pressure of growing international attention on these repressive laws and the ways in which they are abused.

The State Department’s Ministerial on Religious Freedom is Over. Now What?

by Arielle Del Turco , Luke Isbell

July 23, 2019

This year’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. State Department last week saw over 1,000 civil society and political leaders from around the world gather in Washington D.C. for a three-day summit to discuss religious freedom issues and solutions.

The ministerial itself is encouraging. That leaders and advocates of all faiths from all corners of the world can unite on the common goal of promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities is a step in the right direction. However, the stories of survivors of religious persecution featured at the ministerial serve to remind us of the work that still needs to be done.

Just last week, Pew Research Center released a new report which tracks government restrictions and social hostility to religion around the world over a 10-year period between 2007 and 2017. According to the report, “83 countries (42%) experienced high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion from government actions or hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups” in 2017. The enormity of this issue demonstrates the need for action both from U.S. and foreign leaders.

Thankfully, several good initiatives were announced during the ministerial. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a new International Religious Freedom Alliance. This alliance will provide a way for like-minded countries to work together to advance religious freedom, circumventing international bodies like the U.N., which often gives countries with appalling human rights violations a seat at the table.

Last year’s ministerial—the first event of its kind—inspired other countries to hold their own religious conferences. Albania, Colombia, and Morocco are planning to hold regional religious freedom conferences soon. This October, the State Department will partner with the Vatican to co-host a summit highlighting “the importance of working with faith-based organizations to support and protect religious freedom.”

The new alliance and these subsequent regional conferences show the long-term impact of the ministerial.

Yet, the U.S. can do more to advance religious freedom across the globe.

The discussions on religious persecution featured at the ministerial must be integral to United States foreign policy and trade negotiations. Rather than an afterthought, a country’s treatment of their religious minorities should be the litmus test for whether the United States continues economic and military ties with them.

News broke last week that the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against four high-profile Iraqis guilty of human rights abuses. The Global Magnitsky Act is a great tool the U.S. can use to expose the human rights/religious freedom abuses of individuals—because these sanctions are targeted, they often come without the political and diplomatic risks associated with placing sanctions on an entire country.

The Global Magnitsky Act has already been proven effective. In 2018, the Trump administration relied on Executive Order 13818 (which builds on Global Magnitsky Act authority) to sanction two Turkish officials over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson due to his Christian faith. Less than three months later, Pastor Brunson was released. This was an important victory that demonstrated the power of the tools already at our disposal.

Countries care how they are perceived on the world stage. Recent heated responses from world leaders following unfavorable assessments in the State Department’s latest Report on International Religious Freedom demonstrate that much. Events like the ministerial further emphasize the importance of being seen as a country that protects religious freedom on the world stage.

For leaders of countries that live in the shadow of a regional power-house that fails to respect religious freedom such as China, it can take courage to travel to the U.S. to discuss religious liberty. In his address at the ministerial, Pompeo noted this, saying, “If you’re here today and you’re a country which has defied the Chinese pressure to come here, we salute you and we thank you. And if you have declined to attend for the same reason, we took note.” This type of pressure from U.S. leaders can be impactful in diplomacy, and the U.S. should make these public statements more often

Overall, the ministerial highlights several ways in which the United States and the international community can forward the cause of religious freedom. The ministerial was a great start, but it should only be the beginning.  

Arielle Del Turco is the Research Assistant for Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty. Luke Isbell is an intern at FRC.

World Leaders Shamelessly Deny Religious Freedom Violations in Their Countries

by Arielle Del Turco , Luke Isbell

July 12, 2019

When the State Department released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom in June detailing the status of religious freedom in countries around the world, it drew blowback from world leaders whose countries failed to receive a positive report. 

Officials from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were especially quick to criticize the State Department’s assessment of their country.

The report outlines several instances where violence has occurred against religious minorities and how Indian law enforcement has been implicated in many of the crimes.

Violence against Christians and Muslims is an ongoing problem in India—and Indian law enforcement has been reluctant to protect these religious minority communities. What’s worse is that law enforcement has often been implicated in many of the crimes committed against religious minorities. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly common for members of Hindu nationalist groups to attack Christian leaders and their ministries following false accusations that Christians are practicing forced conversions. There’s clearly religious freedom violations occurring in India, and the State Department report offers substantial evidence to confirm that.

In response to the State Department’s report, Anil Baluni, the National Media head for the BJP, defended Indian president Narendra Modi in an official statement. “The basic presumption in this report that there is some grand design behind anti-minority violence is simply false,” he stated. “Whenever needed, Mr. Modi and other BJP leaders have deplored violence against minorities and weaker sections.”

In another response to the report, a government spokesperson tersely retorted that, “India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion.”

The State Department report is not the only announcement that has put oppressive countries on the defensive. Popular news outlets are also calling out countries on the abuses levied at their people.

Recently, Pakistani leaders issued a defense of Pakistan’s treatment of religious minorities. During a recent trip to Brussels, Pakistani Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Shah Mahmood Qureshi attempted to downplay accusations of ongoing Christian persecution in Pakistan. He argued that Christians are “very welcome,” and stated, “we respect them and want them to be there.”

News reports suggest the environment for Christians in Pakistan is less than welcoming. 

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which prohibit speaking against Islam, are often abused and used to settle unrelated disputes. Pakistani Christians live in fear of being accused of blasphemy, which can be punishable by death.

Last week, Nigerian leaders also claimed that accusations of persecution against Christians in Nigeria was exaggerated. This is an especially bold denial when the situation in Nigeria borders on genocide.

Tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced or killed by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen. Boko Haram has killed more people than ISIS, and the Fulani are armed with AK-47s. Despite the horrific violence occurring in Nigeria, when the Northern Christian Elders Forum wrote a letter to the British Parliament about the abuses suffered under the current administration, the Nigerian government was quick to retort that claims of religious persecution in Nigeria were false. Nigerian officials went so far as to trivialize the current violence by calling it a simple case of clashes between farmers and herdsman.  

These incidences of world leaders denying religious freedom violations in their countries is appalling and hard to believe—yet it is actually a good sign. This shows that efforts like the State Department’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom (which calls out countries on their religious freedom violations), the upcoming Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (which highlights the diplomatic importance of honoring religious liberty), and even reports by major news outlets are effective. The fact that state leaders don’t want their countries to be seen as countries where religious liberty isn’t protected shows the pressure that the U.S. State Department can put on countries to improve the status of religious freedom in their countries.

World leaders can deny the truth all they want, but religious freedom is only gaining ground as an issue of focus on the world stage. Soon, leaders will have to do more than deny the ongoing persecution in their countries. If regimes want to gain international legitimacy and improve their reputation, they must become known as governments which respect the freedom of their people to adhere to their conscience and protect religious minorities from harassment and violence due to their faith.

Arielle Del Turco is the Research Assistant for FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty. Luke Isbell is an intern at Family Research Council.

State Department’s New Commission Set to Expose Human Rights Abusers

by Arielle Del Turco

July 10, 2019

July 9th marked the four-year anniversary of the launch of a campaign by Chinese officials to crack down on human rights lawyers. Many of these lawyers were arrested, given prison sentences, and tortured behind bars. This tragedy is now referred to as the “709 Incident” because it began on July 9, 2015. Since this date, China has continued to persecute human rights lawyers and activists.

The Chinese government’s crackdown on anyone brave enough to advocate for human rights in China is especially disgusting given that China currently sits on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.

The fact that shameless human rights abusers can participate in the UN Human Rights Council brings to light an issue that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to address.

On July 7th, Pompeo announced the launch of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. This new panel of scholars, legal experts, and advocates are tasked with reorienting the definition of “human rights” to one that our country’s Founders and the signers of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights would recognize.

Political activists over the past several decades have slowly eroded the proper understanding of human rights from being centered around life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to a catch-all phrase that encompasses everything from abortion to free college tuition.

The confusion over human rights is especially evident in international affairs. The United Nations’ Human Rights Council has shamelessly ignored obvious human rights violations around the world—all while some of the worst violators of human rights claim membership on the council. It’s clear that international institutions tasked with addressing human rights concerns have lost focus on their mission. The Commission on Unalienable Rights is looking to change that.

The commission, which will provide advice, not policy, will take a step back and consider the source and substance of what the Declaration of Independence labeled our “unalienable rights.” Informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and U.S. founding documents, the commission is intended to provide insight on how we can better define and protect essential human rights.

Pompeo argues that oppressive regimes have abused the term “human rights” and acted as if they were champions of this cause. We can no longer let brutal regimes get away with hiding their heinous actions as they hijack the legitimate and necessary terminology of “human rights.” There must be a universal standard of basic human rights so that countries can be held accountable for violating the fundamental rights of their people. We can hope that this new commission will provide the clarity that is so desperately needed to effectively advocate for those most basic rights which all people are entitled to, but far too many people around the world are denied.

Dilshat Perhat Ataman: A Prisoner of Conscience in China

by Arielle Del Turco

July 3, 2019

As the United States and China continue to discuss trade, we have a unique opportunity to raise religious freedom concerns such as that country’s ongoing detention of Christian pastors and mass repression of Uyghur Muslims. It is therefore encouraging to see Family Research Council President and chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Tony Perkins announce yesterday that he was formally adopting Dilshat Perhat Ataman as a prisoner of conscience to highlight his case of unjust imprisonment due to his faith.

Dilshat is a Uyghur Muslim currently detained in a “re-education” internment camp in China’s Xinjiang province.

Dilshat founded and managed a popular website called “Diyarim,” which promoted Uyghur history and culture and provided a social media platform to the Uyghur community. In 2009, he was arrested by Chinese authorities and charged with “endangering state security” after a comment was posted in a chatroom on his website about the Chinese government’s suppression of Uyghur protests.

After serving five years in prison, Dilshat was released in 2014. Yet, his freedom was short-lived. In June 2018, he was rearrested without reason from the Chinese authorities—this time he was taken to a “re-education” internment camp.

Those who have been released from these camps describe how Uyghurs are tortured during interrogation, live in crowded cells, and are subjected to extensive daily regimens of Chinese Communist Party indoctrination (as seen in this BBC report). Detainees routinely face harsh treatment and are forced to live in unhygienic conditions, sometimes leading to their death. 

The Chinese government has invested a lot of resources to surveil and suppress Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group who are mostly Muslim. Yet, it is not a contradiction to say that Christians must care about the suffering they face due to their religious beliefs and advocate on their behalf.  

Christians believe that God is in control of human affairs yet gives people the freedom to choose their beliefs. Just as God gives people that freedom, we should defend the freedom of others to choose and live out their religious convictions without any government harassing, oppressing, imprisoning, or killing people for expressing their basic right to religious freedom.

What the Chinese government is doing to the Uyghurs is evil—and that should be something everyone is concerned about.

Dilshat is one of at least 880,000 and possibly more than 2 million Uyghurs who are detained in Chinese “re-education” internment camps.

The injustice of China’s detention of Dilshat Perhat Ataman in a “re-education” camp is obvious. Hopefully, by bringing Dilshat’s case to light, there will be a greater awareness of the plight of Uyghur Muslims who are targeted for persecution because the Chinese government views their religious beliefs as a threat to the political ideology and authority of the Communist Party.

A Survivor of China’s “Re-education” Camps Exposes Atrocities in Xinjiang

by Arielle Del Turco

June 12, 2019

Mihrigul Tursun is a survivor of a “re-education” internment camp in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

It’s incredibly rare to hear from a survivor of one of the camps. Detainees are rarely released. And when they are, they are closely monitored and intimidated by the Chinese government.

The camps appear to be designed to force Uyghur Muslims—an ethnic and religious minority residing in northwest China—to adopt the norms, language, and non-religious tendencies preferred by the Chinese Communist Party. Detainees are subjected to daily communist party indoctrination sessions, inhumane living conditions, and torture. It is estimated that China currently detains at least one million Uyghurs in these facilities.

A Uyghur Muslim originally from Xinjiang, Mihrigul was living in Egypt with her husband following her education. When she had triplets in 2015, she took her babies back to China so that her parents could help her care for them.

When she arrived at the airport in Xinjiang with her two-month-old triplets, Chinese authorities seized her children from her while she was questioned and beaten. Authorities then took her directly to prison where she was held without any idea if or when she might be released.

Following her release from prison two months later, she rushed to pick up her children from the hospital where the authorities had kept them. Upon her arrival, she was informed that operations had been performed on all three of her children. A day later, it resulted in the death of one of her sons. Despite her pleas, she was denied the request to see her son.

Mihrigul was again taken into custody—this time to a “reeducation” camp. There, Chinese authorities repeatedly tortured her. They put a metal device on her head which transmitted electric shocks sending a searing pain which could be felt even in her veins and bones. The pain was so great she begged the guards to kill her—convinced that death would be better than enduring more torture.

She was placed in Cell 210, a small room that held 68 women. One woman in the cell hadn’t been allowed to leave the room in 13 months—not even to shower. Occasionally, women were taken from the cell and never heard of again.

Mihrigul witnessed nine women die in the cell due to the brutal conditions of the camp over the course of her detention. When the police came to remove a body of the deceased, all the women were instructed to lie down on the floor. The police didn’t enter the room to pick up the body. Rather, they used a metal contraption to pick the body up by the neck and drag it out of the cell, as if trash was being picked up off the ground.

At one point, Mihrigul was sentenced to death and the police asked her how she wanted to die.

Thankfully, Mihrigul was released in April 2018 after having been detained for 10 months in total, and she was allowed to return to Egypt to seek medical treatment for her two remaining children who had Egyptian citizenship.

Even today, the nightmare hasn’t ended for Mihrigul. She can’t sleep at night. The images of the nine women who died keep coming to her mind. In her dreams, Chinese authorities want to kill her.

As I write this now, Mihrigul is living in the United States and speaking out on this issue, though recounting these memories is difficult for her. I had the opportunity to hear her tell her story at a conference held by the World Uyghur Congress in Washington, D.C. last week.

It was sobering to hear this testimony. The room was in tears over Mihrigul’s story. Over 1,500 Uyghurs reside in the Washington, D.C. area, and many of them have family members in China who have disappeared and are thought to be in “re-education” camps. Mihrigul’s testimony points to a terrifying possibility of what might be happening to their own family members in China.

China continues to shamelessly deny the true nature of these camps. Chinese leaders try to sell the narrative that these camps are merely “free vocational training” centers. One Chinese leader claimed the camps are “the same as boarding schools.”

Yet, the lies of Chinese government officials will not shelter them from the truth and their false narratives will not absolve them of their human rights violations.

There is ample evidence to prove what is really going on in Xinjiang. Satellite images, Chinese government budget reports, and witness testimonies such as Mihrigul’s reveal the truth of China’s brutal oppression of religious minorities.

The Western world cannot continue to treat China just like any other nation. The blatant lack of respect for human life and freedom is something that can’t be ignored.

The Trump administration has prioritized religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy—that’s something that needs to be taken seriously. The U.S. government must make it clear that there are diplomatic and economic consequences for China’s crackdown on religious minorities.

Americans benefit immensely from the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution. In contrast, the Chinese government views the beliefs of religious minorities as a threat to the ideology of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Thus, China sends Uyghur Muslims to “re-education” camps to be indoctrinated and tortured and arrests Christians for attending unapproved house churches. As Christians in the United States take notice of the victims of religious freedom violations around the world, such as Uyghur Muslims, we must advocate on their behalf.

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