UK UN raise religious freedom concerns in China

20 Sep 2016

Christian Solidarity Worldwide welcomes the United Kingdom’s calls for China to safeguard freedom of religion or belief, expressed on 19 September in a statement at the 33rd Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council. 

The UK expressed concern about restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and expression in China, and stated that “new laws and regulations affecting media, NGOs and religious groups must expand the space for independent civil society and safeguard religious freedom and belief”.

The comments echo concerns outlined by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in his opening statement to the session on 13 September. The High Commissioner reiterated his deep concern over reports of continued harassment of human rights defenders and their family members, as well as allegations of discrimination, torture and ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and deaths in custody of members of ethnic and religious communities.

The remarks came alongside reports from Human Rights Watch and International Campaign for Tibet that Chinese authorities had reportedly forcibly removed over 1000 Tibetan Buddhists from religious institutions in Sichuan Province.

In July, a “renovation” campaign resulted in the demolition of hundreds of homes at Larung Gar Buddhist institute in Serta, Sichuan Province. Larung Gar is believed to be one of the largest Buddhist teaching centres in the world, with a population of over 10,000. Up to 1000 nuns at another Buddhist institution, Yachen Gar, have also been forced to leave the centre and go to their hometowns following an order by officials. The government has said that the centres are being renovated to address overcrowding and fire safety concerns. However, many of the people affected are reported to be deeply distressed, viewing the demolitions and the manner they are carried out as harassment. Three suicides have been reported in connection with these incidents.

Some observers have compared the demolitions to the cross removal campaign in Zhejiang Province, where hundreds of crosses have been removed and some churches completely demolished in a “rectification” campaign beginning in early 2014. Zhejiang was the site of the G20 summit earlier this month. Apparently in connection with the G20, on 28 August the government released five Christians arrested in April for “obstructing government administration” and “disturbing public order” after opposing a church demolition, according to China Aid.

However, sources also reported the shutting down of religious services and the detention of activists in preparation for the summit. Several Christians are also still in detention in connection with opposing the cross removal campaign; lawyer Zhang Kai, who provided legal advice to Christians in the province, has also been detained again after he stated publicly that comments that appeared to criticise fellow human rights lawyers were made under duress. Zhang Kai was detained in August 2015 and released on bail in March after making a televised “confession” that supporters believe was coerced.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “We welcome this statement by the UK and echo their call for China to safeguard freedom of religion or belief and to release those detained for peacefully exercising rights guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and international law. We remain deeply concerned about reports of forced evictions and demolitions at Larung Gar Buddhist institute, as well as the ongoing detention of Christians who opposed cross removals in Zhejiang Province. We call on the Chinese authorities to uphold and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief for all people in China, regardless of ethnicity, registration status, religion or belief. We further urge the authorities to ensure that any changes made to religious sites in response to safety concerns are made in consultation with the communities affected, and that these actions in no way restrict their right to freedom of religion or belief.”

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