Persecution

China's Muslim gulag is tough to cover, but a few reporters aren't giving up

China's Muslim gulag is tough to cover, but a few reporters aren't giving up

The Wall Street Journal has been one of the chief chroniclers of the de-Islamization of western China to date and its latest piece on the literal razing of Uighur neighborhoods in the regional capital Urumqi is a depressing read. And the Chinese gumboots are getting away with it.

Paired with the above piece is an editorial slamming Muslim governments for selling their persecuted brethren in Xinjiang province down the river for economic incentives and investment from the Chinese. Even Turkey, the traditional defender of its Turkic-speaking relatives among the Uigurs, no longer calls China’s actions “genocide.”

Yet genocide it is, not just of a million-plus people imprisoned in concentration-style camps who may never be released, but of their culture.

It can’t be easy to cover this stuff and I appreciate publications like the Journal and Foreign Policy and Reuters, which has done amazing work mapping out the concentration camps. SupChina.com has a thorough list of press coverage of China’s gulag for the past three years.

This is truly crucial coverage. As the Journal describes here:

URUMQI, China—In this old Silk Road city in western China, a state security campaign involving the detention of vast numbers of people has moved to its next stage: demolishing their neighborhoods and purging their culture.

Two years after authorities began rounding up Urumqi’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uighur residents, many of the anchors of Uighur life and identity are being uprooted. Empty mosques remain, while the shantytown homes that surrounded them have been replaced by glass towers and retail strips like many found across China.

Food stalls that sold fresh nang, the circular flatbread that is to Uighur society what baguettes are to the French, are gone. The young men that once baked the nang (or nan in Uighur) have disappeared, as have many of their customers. Uighur-language books are missing from store shelves in a city, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, that has long been a center of the global Uighur community.

Supplanting the Turkic culture that long defined large parts of Urumqi is a sanitized version catering to Chinese tourists. On a recent morning in the Erdaoqiao neighborhood, the once-bustling heart of Uighur Urumqi, nang ovens were nowhere to be seen—but souvenir shops sold nang-shaped pocket mirrors, nang bottle openers and circular throw pillows with covers printed to look like nang. …

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Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE QUESTION:

What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The slaughter of 50 Muslims and wounding of dozens more at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, provoked horror in that pacific nation, and sorrow and disgust worldwide. Why would anyone violate the religious freedom, indeed the very lives, of innocent people who had simply gathered to worship God?

Unfortunately, murders at religious sanctuaries are not a rare occurrence. In the U.S., recall the murders of six Sikh worshipers at Oak Creek, Wisconsin (2012); nine African Methodists at a prayer meeting in Charleston, S.C. (2015); 26 Southern Baptists in a Sunday morning church rampage at Sutherland Springs, Texas (2017); and 11 Jews observing the Sabbath at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last October.

The Christchurch atrocity was unusual in that authorities identified a white nationalist as the assailant. Most mosque attacks are not carried out by a demented individual, but by radical Muslim movements that intend to kill fellow Muslims for sectarian political purposes. The most shocking example occurred in 1979. A well-armed force of messianic extremists assaulted the faith’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, during the annual pilgrimage (Hajj). The reported death toll was 117 attackers and 127 pilgrims and security guards, with 451 others wounded.

After Christchurch, The Associated Press culled its archives to list 879 deaths in mass murders at mosques during the past decade. (Data are lacking on sectarian attacks upon individual Muslims, also a serious problem for the faith). Such incidents get scant coverage in U.S. news media.

2010: Extremist Sunnis in the Jundallah sect bomb to death six people and themselves at a mosque in southeastern Iran. Then a second Jundallah suicide bombing at an Iranian Shiite mosque kills 27 and injures 270.

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Ubiquitous Shen Yun ads spin off Twitter memes and profiles on Falun Gong

Ubiquitous Shen Yun ads spin off Twitter memes and profiles on Falun Gong

If it’s spring it must be time to see Shen Yun, the mysterious Chinese dance troupe that charges a small fortune for its performances in top culture venues around the country.

Their ads are so widespread, there’s a Twitter discussion about how their billboards can be found even on Mars.

Few people know that Shen Yun represents a quasi-Buddhist group known as Falun Gong and that the Chinese government seems to persecute its followers even more than they hate Christians and Muslims. Which, considering the Nazi-style internment camps for Muslims in western China and the government’s crusade to destroy Christian churches, is saying a lot.

Fortunately, there’s been a few articles out about the group, including one by the Seattle-based The Stranger that calls the dance spectacles “dissident art.” There’s also one that came out last month in the San Francisco Chronicle that begins thus:

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably seen a billboard or heard dozens of ads for Shen Yun Performing Arts.

In the Bay Area, people are so used to seeing the ads on TV and on the sides of buses come December, people even joke winter should be renamed "Shen Yun season." Since I started writing this article about two minutes ago, I've already seen a Shen Yun spot run on KTVU…

Shen Yun bills itself as "the world's premier classical Chinese dance and music company." They have performances in 93 cities around the country, from Billings, Mont., to Little Rock, Ark., to three Bay Area locations. The dress code suggests you might want to wear a tuxedo or evening gown since you're "in for a special treat." If you buy a ticket to a show (which run from $80 to $400 in San Francisco), you can expect two hours of traditional Chinese dance accompanied by a live orchestra.

And yes, it’s here in Seattle from April 2-7.

And if you're to believe Shen Yun's own advertisements, you'll get so much more. The hyperbolic 2018 ad promises the performance will "move you to tears" and change how you see the world…

Some people who go to the show complain they didn't know what they were in for. Because nowhere in the effusive advertisements is it mentioned that Shen Yun has a political bent. Shen Yun translates to "divine rhythm," and according to the show's website, the artists who put on Shen Yun practice Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a belief system that encompasses meditation, tai chi-type exercises, and "strict morality" (smoking, alcohol, and extramarital or same-sex sexual relations go against the teachings).

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.

However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.

For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”

The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.

The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.

The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …

But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.

So what was the theological news?

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Associated Press story is only the latest chronicle of North Korea's persecution of Christians

Associated Press story is only the latest chronicle of North Korea's persecution of Christians

Probably the most unusual religion story out this past weekend was an Associated Press piece on the underground Christians of North Korea. They have been ranked the most persecuted church in the world for the past 18 years.

It’s tough to get people to talk about what really goes on in North Korea, as so few people survive escaping the Hermit Kingdom. This Fox News story gives an idea of the hell that prison life is and no doubt these stories don’t tell half of it.

Still the AP gave us a few ideas on how the North Koreans keep on keeping on.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — One North Korean defector in Seoul describes her family back home quietly singing Christian hymns every Sunday while someone stood watch for informers. A second cowered under a blanket or in the toilet when praying in the North. Yet another recalls seeing a fellow prison inmate who’d been severely beaten for refusing to repudiate her religion.

These accounts from interviews with The Associated Press provide a small window into how underground Christians in North Korea struggle to maintain their faith amid persistent crackdowns…

One woman interviewed said she converted about 10 relatives and neighbors and held secret services before defecting to the South.

“I wanted to build my church and sing out as loud as I could,” said the woman, who is now a pastor in Seoul. She insisted on only being identified with her initials, H.Y., because of serious worries about the safety of her converts and family in the North.

The pastor and others spoke with AP because they wanted to highlight the persecution they feel Christians face in North Korea. Although the comments cannot be independently confirmed, they generally match the previous claims of other defectors.

My one problem with the last paragraph; “they feel” Christians face in North Korea? Isn’t it pretty established by now that Christians are persecuted there? Some have compared it to Nero’s Rome, so let’s drop the caveats, OK?

The account tells of some haunting stories.

Another defector in Seoul, Kwak Jeong-ae, 65, said a fellow inmate in North Korea told guards about her own religious beliefs and insisted on using her baptized name, rather than her original Korean name, during questioning in 2004.

“She persisted in saying, ‘My name is Hyun Sarah; it’s the name that God and my church have given to me,’” Kwak said. “She told (the interrogators), ‘I’m a child of God and I’m not scared to die. So if you want to kill me, go ahead and kill me.’”

Kwak said Hyun told her about what she did during the interrogations, and Hyun’s actions were confirmed to Kwak by another inmate who was interrogated alongside her. Kwak said she later saw Hyun, then 23, coming back from an interrogation room with severe bruises on her forehead and bleeding from her nose. Days later, guards took Hyun away for good.

Actions like that strike many defectors and South Koreans as extraordinary

I’m not sure what that last sentence means. Does it mean the story is unbelievable?

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China's 'social credit' system: 'Hunger Games,' Big Brother or the book of Revelation?

China's 'social credit' system: 'Hunger Games,' Big Brother or the book of Revelation?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a piece on Vice.com about China’s social credit system, a mix of “Brave New World,” “The Hunger Games” and Revelation 13:16-17.

Do you think the Chinese government would use this system to punish religious believers? We will come back to that angle.

For those of you not familiar with end-of-the-New Testament prophecy, the latter concerns a “mark” (barcode?) one must have to do any financial transactions worldwide. It all sounded like something out of the 22nd century until I began reading about China’s creepy citizen tracking system.

A short piece at Vice started thus:

RONGCHENG, China — Here and in other cities across China, monitors have been tracking people's behaviors — good and bad — for the country's new Social Credit System. It’s kind of like the American credit score system, except it tracks far more than financial transactions.

And the consequences can be pretty serious.

Part of the system is a neighbor watch program that's being piloted across the country where designated watchers are paid to record people's behaviors that factor into their social credit score. Zhou Aini, for one, gets paid $50 USD a month to watch her neighbors as an "information collector." She records observations in a notebook and then shares it with a local government office that determines the results.

A high score could bring you lower interest loans and discounted rent and utility bills, but if your score is low, you can be subjected to public shaming or even banned from certain kinds of travel. Basically, your life gets harder.

While the score is not exactly the biochip everyone must have embedded in their hand or forehead mentioned in the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels, it is unsettling.

China’s persecution of its Muslim, Falun Gong and Christian minorities is getting worse by the day, so you can guess which groups would immediately suffer losses of their social credit. Today they might not be able to buy tickets for a plane flight. Tomorrow they may not be able to buy food.

Various media have been covering this trend for the past year. However, when it comes to religion, I haven’t seen much connecting of the dots.

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The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

It was nearly 16 years ago that GetReligion.org opened its cyber doors (with our next birthday just ahead on Feb. 2).

That is an eternity in Internet years.

Anyway, one of the things that co-founder Doug LeBlanc and I decided right up front is that — with very few exceptions — we would focus on hard-news coverage of religion in the mainstream press. Even then, there was all kinds of interesting stuff running on op-ed pages and in magazines that offered a mix of news and editorial comment. The World Wide Web was already a pretty wild place.

Over time, we started pushing “think pieces” to the weekend — pointing readers to commentary pieces that directly addressed issues relevant to religion-beat pros and news consumers who focused on religion news, broadly defined. Eventually, we sought out veteran reporters — think Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin — to write memo-style essays addressing where they thought trends in the news were heading.

But something else was happening at the same time. To be blunt, opinion pieces cost way less than news coverage. In recent years, it has become common to see major stories “broken” in commentary pieces. Sometimes, if you want updates on actual news stories, you need to look in the editorial columns.

Lately, I have had some readers send me emails wondering what has happened with the case of Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother in rural Pakistan who was accused of blasphemy. It made headlines when she was found not guilty. Then she went into hiding, as mobs threatened to kill her. Attempts to find asylum in other lands have been futile.

So what’s going on? Where’s the news coverage?

Well, click here for this week’s “think piece” — which actually contains background on the news. The headline, in tis recent opinion piece at The Washington Post: “My client’s death sentence for blasphemy was overturned. She still cannot leave Pakistan.”

My client? The author is Saif ul Malook and here is the description of the editorial process:

Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.

If you want an actual summary of recent events, this is not a bad place to start — even though this is not, of course, a news piece. Here is a sample:

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Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

On July 16, the New York Times ran a blockbuster story with this headline: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.

The man at the heart of this story was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — now ex-cardinal — long one of the most powerful Catholics in America and, some would say, the world. His spectacular fall led to a tsunami of chatter among religion-beat veterans because of decades of rumors about his private affairs, including beach-house sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians. Click here for a Julia Duin post on that.

There was another layer to all of this. McCarrick’s career was rooted in work in the greater New York City area and in Washington, D.C. He was one of the most important media sources among center-left Catholic leaders, so much so that a cluster of reporters linked to him became known as “Team Ted.”

Then came the brutal letters from the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, claiming that a global network of Catholic powerbrokers — including Pope Francis — had helped hide McCarrick and had profited from his clout and patronage.

In August there was an explosion of news about the release of a hellish seven-decade grand-jury report about abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: 2018 was a year in which there were major developments in two big clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic world. They were, of course, connected.

There was the old, ongoing story of priests abusing teens and children, starting with headlines in the early 1980s. Then there was the issue of how to discipline bishops, archbishops and even cardinals accused of abuse — a story in which all roads lead to Rome and, these days, Pope Francis.

Which story was more important in 2018? Which story centered on new, global developments? These questions are at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our discussion centered on the release of the Religion News Association’s annual list of the Top 10 religion-beat stories — in which the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was No. 1 and McCarrick and Vigano fell near the end of that list.

In my own list, McCarrick and Vigano were No. 1 and the Pennsylvania report was No. 4, in part because 97 percent of its crimes were pre-2002, the year U.S. bishops passed strict anti-abuse policies.

There was another strange — IMHO — twist in this. RNA members selected Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as Newsmaker of the Year, after his long, progressive sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Oddly, McCarrick’s name was not even included on the ballot.

It helps to see the lists.

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