WASHINGTON—The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report this week and called on Congress and the Trump administration to increase sanctions against countries with rampant religious persecution, especially China.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill Monday, the commissioners zeroed in on China, a designated Tier 1 country of particular concern (CPC). The State Department recommends sanctions against Tier 1 CPCs due to “systemic, ongoing, egregious violations” of religious liberty.
“If we were to rate the Tier 1 countries, China would be in a category all by itself,” USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer told reporters. “They are an equal opportunity persecutor. They go after anybody, any sect that might compete with the communist, atheistic government of China.”
The report notes that Uighur Muslims in the country are “constantly surveilled, their phones confiscated and scanned, their skin pricked for blood samples to collect their DNA, their children prohibited from attending mosque. Even worse, the Chinese government has ripped entire families apart, detaining between 800,000 and 2 million adults in concentration camps and relegating some of their children to orphanages.”
China is also waging an ongoing crackdown on Christians, including house churches and Protestant congregations such as Early Rain Covenant Church, which had more than 100 of its members and leaders arrested in December.
Bauer, the president of public policy think tank American Values, told me that China’s enormous global influence adds to the concern.
“When you look at some of the other countries, it’s very bad—but they’re not countries whose long arm is reaching into countries all over the world,” he said. “The trade issue is obviously a huge issue, and it affects many jobs, and many people in the United States have a stake in either the cheap labor in China or access to cheap products. But this commission has been mandated to only focus on religious liberty—so we’re going to continue to urge that our government and this administration keep religious liberty and religious persecution as a central part of any negotiations.”
Several members of Congress have also echoed calls for additional sanctions on China for human rights violations. In August 2018, a bipartisan group of 17 lawmakers wrote a letter urging the White House to apply sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the United States to impose economic consequences for human rights violations overseas.
“The Chinese government’s renewed war on religion should be a particular concern for the international community, as their efforts will be copied by other authoritarian leaders,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a co-signer of the letter, told me. “Chinese officials should be held accountable for the arbitrary detentions of [pastor] Wang Yi and the Early Rain Church leaders and the internment of over a million Uighurs and other Muslims—a clear crime against humanity.”
The commission’s report also calls on the Trump administration to lift a decadeslong waiver for Saudi Arabia that allows the country to escape sanctions for human rights violations despite its CPC designation. The State Department has given the country a waiver since 2006, in part due to its long-standing economic alliance with the United States. But the pressure to end the waiver increased after the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Just last week, Saudi officials beheaded 37 Saudi nationals, the majority of whom were Shiite Muslims, in a mass execution. Shiites make up about 15 percent of the Saudi population.
In April, Congress passed a measure to end U.S. support for Saudi involvement in the Yemen civil war. President Donald Trump vetoed the measure, and the Senate failed to get a two-thirds majority to override that veto in a vote Thursday afternoon.
In addition to recommending sanctions, the USCIRF report also recommends that the Trump administration appoint a special adviser on international religious freedom to the National Security Council. The adviser would report directly to national security adviser John Bolton.
In light of recent attacks on New Zealand mosques and the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, the report also recommends the State Department allocate more resources globally to “protect the places of worship and other holy sites of religious minorities communities.”