How Congress can help religious believers in China
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At a time when the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom remains vacant, Congress has an especially important role to play in advocating for religious freedom around the world.

Religious believers in China are particularly in need of dedicated congressional attention.

China's authoritarian regime oversees a massive apparatus for controlling religious practice and belief. Basic spiritual activities that are practiced freely in most countries — from praying with one's children to observing important holidays and rituals — are restricted and can be harshly punished in China.

On an almost daily basis, injuries are suffered, families are shattered and lives are lost.

A recently released Freedom House study found that religious persecution in China is worsening, with controls seeping into new areas of daily life and targeting a wider range of religious leaders and believers, including those in state-sanctioned congregations.

At least 100 million people — nearly one-third of estimated believers in China — are members of groups facing "high" or "very high" levels of persecution.

But the study also found that some faith groups and localities feature fewer restrictions. Moreover, increased repression overall is triggering greater resistance, and cracks are appearing even in long-standing prohibitions.

These dynamics have implications far beyond the area of religious policy, influencing China’s political, economic and social development in critical ways. And in an increasingly interconnected world, the same trends have repercussions outside China's borders.

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This reality presents an urgent and unique opportunity for the U.S. government and Congress to take actions that can protect Chinese believers and expand the space for their practice. But the complexity of conditions in China, the varied treatment meted out to different groups, and the need for both top-down and bottom-up pressures call for a multipronged strategy.

 

Individual members of Congress should take steps to signal their interest in this critical area of human rights. When visiting China or meeting with Chinese officials in the United States, they should raise the issue of religious persecution and express personal concern for faith groups or coreligionists in China.

Resources like a Freedom House map rating Chinese provinces by degree of religious persecution can provide guidance on whether a regional official should be pressured to improve conditions or encouraged for overseeing an area with relatively low repression.

Alongside collective actions like sponsoring resolutions and holding hearings about religion in China, members can issue statements expressing solidarity with and concern for believers in China.

Such statements can be especially powerful when made at opportune times, such as religious holidays (like Christmas or Ramadan) or important anniversaries (like the flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet or the launch of the crackdown on Falun Gong) that often correspond to an uptick in repression on the ground.

These more general actions should be supplemented with in-depth and targeted advocacy on behalf of individual religious prisoners. Tactics such as adoption of a prisoner or the writing of a single letter calling for his or her freedom have proven to be effective time and again in protecting innocent people from torture, facilitating better treatment in custody, and in some cases, securing early release.

Resources like the Lantos Human Rights Commission's Defending Freedoms Project or the Congressional-Executive Commission on China's Political Prisoner Database include the names of hundreds of individuals from across China who are worthy of congressional support.

Members of Congress should also actively urge the Trump administration to adopt policies and measures that place the United States in its best position to support believers in China and sanction officials involved in their persecution.

Possible actions that the administration, and especially the Department of State, could take in the immediate future include:

 

1. Have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson voice concern over human rights violations, including religious persecution, during his upcoming trip to China.

This first official trip to the country will set the tone for the bilateral relationship under the Trump administration, and religious freedom is a key issue that should be on the agenda.

2. Swiftly appoint a strong candidate to the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom who has experience addressing these issues in China, and ensure that he or she meets with relevant U.S.-based groups and survivors of persecution from China soon after assuming the post.

3. Enforce the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and include Chinese officials on the list of sanctioned individuals as soon as possible, while also applying provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act that render officials involved in religious persecution ineligible for visas.

Despite tightening controls, millions of religious believers in China defy official restrictions in daily life with creativity and courage, at times scoring significant victories. Such perseverance deserves solidarity and support from the elected representatives of the world’s most influential democracy.

A government in China that respects the inherent rights and fundamental freedoms of all people, including religious believers, would both strengthen Chinese society and remove a critical obstacle to a sincerely cooperative U.S.-China relationship.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and author of "The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping." Annie Boyajian is advocacy manager at Freedom House and a former legislative director on Capitol Hill.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.