106 countries attended in Washington the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The clearest message: China persecutes all religions.
by Massimo Introvigne
“The Super Bowl of religious liberty.” Who said it first is unclear, but the label stuck. A Super Bowl-like atmosphere captured even the most skeptical delegates at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington DC on July 15-18, 2019. They cried with the persecuted, got angry at the persecutors, and laughed at the moments of humor that peppered the otherwise sober remarks of superstar lecturers, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Washington DC is not easily surprised but had to take notice, when two thousand Falun Gong practitioners dressed in yellow marched through the city, to remember the world they are being persecuted from twenty years, and President Trump changed his schedule to meet with victims of religious persecution, including four from China (a Tibetan Buddhist, a Uyghur, a member of Falun Gong and a Christian). And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was unusually stern, when he called the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs “the stain of the century,” and suggested that China had unduly pressured some countries not to send representatives to the event in Washington.
Bitter Winter was there, but it was impossible to cover everything. Everybody who was somebody in the field of religious liberty activism was in town. It was, undoubtedly, the largest religious freedom meeting ever, with 106 countries and 500 NGOs and religious organizations represented, and more than 100 side events.
Clearly, the Super Bowl style challenged the media. There was a clear message that religious liberty is in trouble in many parts of the world, and that hate crimes and discrimination pop up also in the West. But media were sometimes confused on which specific cases they should focus on.
Not all is well even in democratic countries. During one of the most well-attended side events, about the work of the International Religious Freedom Roundtables, a key partner of this Ministerial, I myself pointed out the irony that a few days after this massive celebration of religious freedom, South Korea will allow Chinese agents and fellow travelers to stage false demonstrations against peaceful refugees from China who belong to The Church of Almighty God. They will cause unnecessary stress and suffering to asylum seekers already distressed by the fact that Korean authorities do not recognize their refugee status. A letter signed by 13 NGOs denouncing the hoax was distributed to the delegates, and generated widespread sympathy and support.
There were too many cases of denounced abuse and discrimination to allow the media to report them all. The “stain of the century” speech by the U.S. Secretary of State, in a way, put the conference back on track. As the same Pompeo had said last month introducing the new State Department Report on Religious Freedom, there are many bad guys in this world but China “is on a league of its own.”
The voices from the Uyghurs were heard loud and clear, more than once. They spoke at a sold-out reception at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and in a plenary session the daughter of jailed Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti challenged China to tell the truth, stop spreading fake news, and set free millions of Uyghurs detained in the dreaded transformation through education camps.
For me, one of the most moving speeches was by Sister Zou Demei, in the opening side event on China, where the former leader of The Church of Almighty God in four Chinese provinces told how the CCP, when she fled to the United States and media started publicizing her case, arrested her parents and killed her mother.
In discussing with politicians, diplomats, religious leaders, it became clear that Pompeo was indeed right and China tried to interfere with the Ministerial, by rallying its allies in the anti-human-rights Axis of Shame to criticize it. It is possible that some countries resented the leadership role of the United States in promoting religious liberty. Rather than complaining, they should become as active in this field as the Americans are.
In the end, the clash is between two different narratives on human rights. For China and its Axis of Shame allies, human rights are “Westerner” or “American” and non-Western countries are authorized to ignore them. For international law, democratic governments, and decent and compassionate human beings, human rights are universal, and religious liberty is the crown jewel of all human rights.