China’s Xinjiang province an ‘open-air prison’, US official says

Annual US report also criticises Iran, Myanmar, Russia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia over their treatment of religious minorities.

Security guards stand at the gates of what China calls a vocational skills training centre in Xinjiang but which the US calls re-education camps [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

China has turned its far western region of Xinjiang into an “open-air prison” for Uighur Muslims a United States official has said as the US released an annual report on the state of religious freedoms worldwide.

The Chinese government has turned “the entire region into an open-air prison”, said Daniel Nadel the director of the US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom on Wednesday.

China had relied on putting large numbers of Uighurs in camps for “re-education” and “forced labour” but has broadened its repression to encompass the entire region, Nadel said at a media conference in Washington, DC.

“People’s movements are closely tracked. You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uighurs to keep tabs on them,” Nadel said.

The annual State Department religious freedom report is required by the US Congress under a 1998 law and covers religious freedom conditions in dozens of countries around the world. In this year’s report, which runs to 2,300 pages, the US criticised not only China but countries including Iran, Myanmar, Russia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia for religious persecution.

The US “cannot look away from the ongoing crimes against humanity and genocide the Chinese government is perpetrating against Muslim Uighurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” Nadel said.

The US State Department had already concluded in an annual human rights survey that China was committing “genocide” against the Uighurs.

President Joe Biden raised the issue with other members of the Group of Seven allied nations at a meeting in April.

The United Nations has said that about one million Uighurs have been held in camps in the region that China has said are necessary to teach vocational skills and tackle hardline groups.

China says the camps like this one in Kashgar are vocational skills training centres and necessary to tackle ‘extremism’ [File: Ben Blanchard/Reuters]

At the UN Human Rights Council in February, Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected allegations of abuses as “slanderous attacks”.

He said there were 24,000 mosques in the western region, adding that “basic facts show that there has never been so-called genocide, forced labour or religious oppression in Xinjiang”.

The repression of Muslims in China is an extension of earlier drives against Buddhists in Tibet and others, Nadel said.

“This can be seen as the culmination of decades of repression of religious adherence from Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners,” he said.

In connection with the release of the report, the State Department accused Yu Hui, a leading China Communist Party official, of being responsible for “gross human rights violations” for the arbitrary detention of Falun Gong followers.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a media conference to introduce the report that Iran continues to intimidate, harass, and arrest Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims.

In Myanmar, military coup leaders are among those responsible for ethnic cleansing and other atrocities against Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, he said.

In Russia, authorities continue to harass, detain and seize the property of Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as members of Muslim minority groups on the pretext of alleged violence.

Nigerian courts convict people of blasphemy, sentencing them to long-term imprisonment or even death, yet no action has been taken against the military’s mass killing of hundreds of Shia Muslims in 2015.

Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world without a Christian church, though there are more than a million Christians living in Saudi Arabia, Blinken said.

“Religious freedom is a human right; in fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be human – to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies