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China Issues Freedom of Religion Policy, Sentences Ilham to Life Imprisonment

China Issues Freedom of Religion Policy, Sentences Ilham to Life Imprisonment

Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China’s Uighur minority, gestures as he speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, China. A Chinese court on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014 imposed a harsh life sentence on Ilham Tohti, who championed the country’s Uighur minority, the most severe penalty in a decade for anyone in China convicted of illegal political speech. (Andy Wong/AP)

In a long overdue move, China’s highest court, top prosecution office and the Ministry of Public Security issued instructions last week on how to deal with cases of terrorism and religious extremism. Released on their various websites, the instructions urge court officials, prosecutors and police to distinguish between the illegal acts of religious extremists and ordinary religious activities.

According to the instructions, officials should avoid discriminating against any religion or ethnic minority, and should not interfere with citizens’ freedom to practice their religion. In addition, for those criminals who surrender and provide testimony, leniency should be granted. Those criminals who have not caused great harm and have expressed remorse for their actions will be exempted from punishment.

Confusingly, the release of the instructions came just days before a guilty verdict was delivered on Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uygur professor of economics who was an outspoken, yet moderate critic of China’s policies in the far western autonomous province of Xinjiang. Ilham, who has argued for the Muslim Uygurs to express their religious identity in a non-violent fashion, was convicted of separatism on Tuesday and now faces life in prison. Experts point to a long-standing combination of unequal economic opportunities and restrictive religious policies between the majority Han Chinese residents and the minority Muslim Uygurs as fueling ethnic tension in the region.

While the new instructions seem to be promising, not everyone truly believes they will eventually be implemented. Immediately following the release of the instructions on government websites, a series of explosions occurred in China’s volatile western region of Xinjiang last Sunday. Early reports said at least two people were killed and many more injured in the explosions which hit at least three locations in Luntai County at around 5pm on Sunday. By Thursday, authorities announced 50 people, including 40 assailants, had been killed as bombs exploded at two police stations, a produce market and a store. The attack killed two police officers, two police assistants and six bystanders, 40 assailants, and injured 54. Police captured two of the attackers, and an investigation identified Mamat Tursun, a Uygur man who was fatally shot, as the one responsible for the attack. More than half of the county’s 113,000 residents are ethnic Uygurs, who are often held accountable for such acts of terrorism in the region.

While the new instructions insist officials differentiate between hard-line extremists and innocent civilians, in practice this will be difficult. Gatherings among Uygurs at local mosques, where terrorist plots may be hatched, will be hard to police without restricting activities for all or creating tensions. Current methods by police of going into houses to arrest women wearing veils or forcing men to eat during Ramadan’s fasting days will have to be quickly reversed. And the new instructions do not address current restrictions on the practice of religion among Uygur children in Xinjiang, many of whom have been “rescued” from religious schools known as madrassas. Recently, 27 places used for “underground” preaching were closed along with 44 imams being detained.

Not only do the new instructions appear to be contrary to ordinary practice by authorities in Xinjiang, but they also run counter to recent practice in other provinces. In wealthy Zhejiang Province, just outside of Shanghai, Christian churches, many of which operate under the state sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement are being demolished and crosses removed. According to Philip Wickeri, the adviser to the Anglican archbishop of Hong Kong for theological and historical studies, at least 150 crosses had been removed, and many churches and local shrines have been pulled down by the provincial authorities. The crackdown comes at a time when the total number of Christians in China is approaching nearly 87 million — equivalent to the number of Communist Party members.

As expected, local provincial authorities deny they are engaged in a campaign against religion and argue they are only trying to remove buildings and other structures that fail to comply with local land use regulations. Yet in a leaked document last May, regulating “overly popular” forms of worship was stated as a policy goal in Zhejiang.

In northern China, near the North Korean border, Christian charity groups and foreign missionaries are facing increased pressure. Experts say there were approximately 2,000 to 4,000 missionaries from South Korea alone in early 2013, and since then, several hundred have been forced out of China. Reverend Peter Jung, director of Justice For North Korea, which supports North Korean defectors, believes the forced evacuation has increased in recent months, saying “This crackdown, and the people being deported, has intensified starting from May.” In the latest high-profile detainment, Kevin and Julia Garratt, a Canadian Christian couple who ran a coffee shop in Dandong, on the North Korean border, have been arrested and accused of stealing state secrets. The Canadian couple are the latest victims of a two-year crackdown on foreign missionaries, including hundreds of South Koreans, some of whom have helped Christian defectors from North Korea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s effort to rid the country of negative and threatening foreign religious influences is understandable for any nation, but has been heavy-handed at times, especially in Xinjiang, and misplaced, as in Zhejiang. The latest instructions, directing officials to avoid discriminating against religions or ethnic minorities, and to stop interfering with citizens’ freedom to practice their religion, may be in response to criticism from Western nations and human rights groups, which have long criticized the Communist country for its refusal to allow free practice of religion. Yet while the latest instructions may appease the critics for a sort while, continuing events on the ground are likely to prove otherwise, as it is hard to believe this officially atheist state will ever relent in its crackdown on religion.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666