Article 36 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China of 1982 specifies that, “Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.” Despite this provision within the state constitution, The reality is no such freedom exists- much like Article 72 of the Soviet Constitution which permitted that “each Republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the U.S.S.R.” We all know how the Soviets responded when states attempted to exercise this “right”. Behind strictly closed doors, it has emerged that China has been conducting an state-backed campaign of persecution of religious minorities - particularly Uighur Muslims and Christians. The Chinese single-party state knows and fears the power of ideas, particularly religious belief. In August 2018, a UN committee heard that up to 1 million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups could be detained in the western Xinjiang region of China, where they are said to be undergoing “re-education” programmes. One former prisoner told the BBC, “They wouldn’t let me sleep, they would hang me up for hours and would beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out the nails. All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready to use at any time. And I could hear other people screaming as well.” Last month, footage emerged from the Chinese province of Xinjiang showing dozens of Uighur men - their heads freshly shaved - blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs during a mass transfer at a train station in the north-west region of China, painfully similar to the mass deportations and resettlement of Jewish people conducted by the Nazis at the beginning of WW2. After the horrors of the Holocaust, the free nations of the world vowed 'never again' would such evil plague humanity. However, the Chinese persecution of religious minorities shows that history may be repeating itself, whilst the West turns a blind eye.
China expert and social scientist Steven Mosher believes that persecution of Christians, particularly Catholics, in China is currently unfolding in a way the “world has never seen the likes of.” “In China, God has a name,” he continued. “His name is Xi Jinping and he is as cruel and merciless an individual as we have ever seen ruling China.” The Chinese President demands total submission from his people and Mosher states that there are “several hundred thousand people” in Chinese prisons for not being sufficiently submissive to his will. A large proportion of this number is made up from incarcerated Chinese Catholics. It has also been revealed that Christian churches in China have been ordered to take down displays of the Ten Commandments and replace them with quotes from President Xi Jinping. Even with the sordid deal between the Vatican and China in 2018, a report presented to the US Congress found that the human rights situation had worsened. The report notes the rise of mass internment camps in the Xinjiang province of China, the relentless persecution of Christians, Muslims, unregistered religious groups and the repression of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. President Trump, for all his tough talk on China, has failed to hold China to account for its abysmal human rights violations- preferring to focus solely on economics. As we come into US Presidential election season, China will certainly be a hot topic for both candidates. The 'red-carpet' treatment that President Xi Jinping received during a state visit to the UK, most notably riding in a royal carriage with the Queen, was truly shocking considering his brutal human rights record. What is even more shocking is that China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council despite its clear violation of fundamental human rights enshrined in the UDHR including freedom of religion. Religious leaders, particularly Pope Francis, have an even greater responsibility to speak up for their silenced and persecuted brothers and sisters.
I would like to finish with a message from Carnlough-born missionary Priest Fr Owen O’Kane SSC. In his memoirs he wrote;
“I have painted, I fear, a grim picture of life in Chinese Communist jails. Before I end there is something I want to add. Out of my fifteen months in Kashing Jail I can recall only two days on which I was unhappy. One of them, I remember, was Christmas Day 1952, for my thoughts tore loose from their narrow moorings and sped in spite of me to Ireland, Antrim and Home.”
We can only hope that those persecuted for their faith in China experience the same courage. We must be their voice.
Gerard Scullion is 19 and from Carnlough, East Antrim. He studies Law at Queen’s University Belfast and takes an interest in matters of faith and politics.