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Religious communities and activists targeted over the Christmas period must not be forgotten

6 Jan 2020

The period between Christmas and New Year saw further human rights violations against religious communities, activists and lawyers in China, including arbitrary detention, harassment and restrictions on religious activities.

On 26 December, Pastor Wang Yi, who leads the Early Rain Church in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of ‘inciting to subvert state power’ and ‘illegal business operations’. The European Union, State Department and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in China all expressed concern about the sentence, as did Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK Foreign Office Minister of State with responsibility for Human Rights, and the Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kosovo.

On 20 December, China Aid reported that authorities in Henan had forced imprisoned pastor Zhang Shaojie to take an unknown medicine. His family also said that Zhang’s mental state has deteriorated significantly.

Elsewhere in China, churches reported that local authorities had warned Christians not to hold public gatherings to celebrate Christmas. On Christmas Day, authorities in Xining City, Qinghai Province, closed down a church of 300 members, cutting off the electricity supply and forcing worshippers to evacuate in the dark. Witnesses say the authorities in Qinghai have shut down religious venues on a large scale in recent years, including over 20 Christian groups in one year alone.

RFA also reported that authorities in Tibet tightened restrictions on celebrations on 20 and 21 December for the important festival of Ganden Ngachoe, marking the 600th anniversary of the death of a key religious leader, banning participation by students and government employees.

In the final days of 2019, at least twelve activists were detained, interrogated or disappeared in various provinces, apparently in connection with a small private gathering in Fujian earlier in the month. Several of the activists have since been released but others are out of contact, including Chinese human rights lawyer Tang Jingling, who was previously imprisoned for five years for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ in connection with his peaceful defence of human rights.

Reporting on violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief and human rights is extremely dangerous in China. Over the Christmas period, Bitter Winter, an online magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China published by the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) reported that 20 of their reporters remain in jail, some of whose whereabouts are unknown.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “The right to freedom of religion or belief in China has been severely curtailed in recent years, and particularly since the introduction of the revised regulations of religious affairs in 2018. The world must not tire of drawing attention to the marked deterioration in human rights in the country. Every person in this list of incidents has a family and a community. We welcome the international interventions made on behalf of Pastor Wang Yi and urge the international community to continue to raise this and other cases of religious adherents and human rights defenders, as well as the repression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and other human rights violations, in bilateral and multilateral dialogues with China.”

In a resolution adopted on 19 December, Members of the European Parliament expressed serious concern about China’s repression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and called on the Chinese government to close the so-called “re-education camps” immediately. The resolution was adopted the day after Jewher Ilham, daughter of imprisoned scholar Ilham Tohti, accepted the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on her father’s behalf. Ilham Tohti is currently serving a life sentence. Before his arrest, he worked tirelessly to promote peaceful dialogue between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. At the award ceremony, Jewher Ilham called on those present to “work towards a solution" to address violations against the Uyghur people.

Following increased police brutality against Hong Kong protesters during the Christmas period, 40 parliamentarians and dignitaries from 18 countries signed an open letter calling on Chief Executive Carrie Lam to instruct the Hong Kong police to exercise restraint and respect the right to peaceful protest, to make it possible for an independent inquiry into police brutality to be established, to release all protesters unjustly detained, and to consider political reform.

A New Year message from the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, published by Chinachange.org, summarised 2019 as a year “defined by much tumult” in China. The statement highlighted the increasing surveillance and restrictions by the government, saying that “protocols, truth, justice, and hope are nowhere to be found.” China’s human rights lawyers, they say, are working on the front line to defend human rights. They conclude that “by the looks of things, there is really no reason to be optimistic”; yet, the statement ends with a call to action:  “In 2020, we must not let ourselves lose spirit. On the contrary, we should become closer with the people, listen carefully to their voices, and devise actionable steps to prepare for improvements in human rights….Let us welcome 2020, prepare for 2020!” 

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