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.

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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.

Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old carpenter who has lived in Russia for more than two decades, was sentenced on Wednesday by a court in Oryol, a city some 200 miles south of Moscow. The Danish national had spent almost two years in a pre-trial detention facility after being detained by armed police and officers from the FSB security service during a raid on a Jehovah’s Witness prayer hall in Oryol in May 2017.

Christensen is the first Jehovah’s Witness to be sentenced to prison in Russia since the country’s Supreme Court declared the pacifist Christian denomination an “extremist organization” in 2017, putting it on par with the Islamic State militant group and neo-Nazi movements.

The Supreme Court claims Jehovah’s Witnesses promote the “exclusivity and supremacy” of their beliefs.

Prosecutors said Christensen had organized the religious activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years behind bars. They did not cite, however, any specific examples of what exactly was “extremist” about his actions.

This backgrounder from The Economist explains why Witnesses are often persecuted by defensive governments — including democracies such as the United States, particularly during war times — that can't countenance the movement’s pacifist ways. This includes refusing military service and refusing to salute national flags.

It also notes how the Witnesses unorthodox beliefs have few friends willing to go to the mat for them across the Christian world.  (Warning, the magazine has a difficult to circumvent pay wall. Also, I'm not making any judgements about the group's Christian claims. The Christian world is replete with competing claims; please reach your own conclusions.)

Since Christensen’s sentencing, there have been numerous reports of additional Witnesses being arrested.

That mainstream media outlets have been all over this latest assault on Witness fortunes in Russia is perhaps the only silver lining to this story. Perhaps the coverage will pressure Russia into backing off, though I wouldn't bet on it.

But I can’t help wondering whether the uptick in coverage is out of concern for the religious rights of a persecuted, small group or simply because western journalists are out to politically discredit the dictatorial, anti-West Putin government.

 No, I don't think I’m being too cynical. All sides play political games.

Now let’s catch up with the latest political twists in the Chinese Uighur story.

In recent days, support for the Uighur cause has been heard in two major Muslim nations. They are Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and Turkey, who’s authoritarian president, Recep Erdogan, fancies himself a global champion for Islam.

In Indonesia, it’s the political opposition, in the midst of an election campaign, that’s brought the Uighur crisis to the fore as a way of differentiating itself from the government policies. I first learned of this via this Foreign Policy piece.

The Indonesian government itself, on the other hand, has remained mum. Again, it's about political manipulation. Trade and investments that benefit those in power are often the motivation, just as populist outreach to conservative Muslim voters can be a prime motivation.

Quoting from the piece: 

“Xinjiang, what a wonderful place,” declared an op-ed by China’s ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian, published by the Jakarta Post last September. Xiao extolled the virtues of the region’s “mutual respect, solidarity and harmony among ethnic groups,” a place where Beijing has been accused of committing cultural genocide against Uighur Muslims.

The detention of a million or more Uighurs has made headlines around the world, but the liberal media in Indonesia has given the issue very soft treatment. That’s partially because of a deliberate propaganda effort by China to target Indonesian journalists—and partially because of domestic politics in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

The government of Indonesia has also remained conspicuously reserved, even in the face of China unveiling plans to “Sinicize Islam.” Vice President Jusuf Kalla has asserted that Jakarta has no intention to interfere with Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in China. China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner, with figures from the Indonesian Ministry of Trade showing that two-way trade jumped 25 percent to $66 billion during the first 11 months of 2018.

China’s financial power has resulted in a similar see-no-evil attitude on the part of Pakistan, another influential Muslim nation. As Al Jazeera English reported recently:

Beijing has invested $62bn in the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will connect Kashgar in Xinjiang to the southern Gwadar port in Pakistan.

China has also promised financial aid to the country, which is desperate to sort out its economic woes.

Finally, we come to Turkey’s decision to speak out on behalf of the Uighurs. But as this Washington Post story makes clear, politics plays a role here, too.

The Turkish statement came weeks before the country heads to polls in nationwide local elections.

Erdogan has styled himself as a leader of the Muslim world and a defender of the world’s Turkic peoples. In 2009, he described China’s crackdown on Uighurs in the wake of ethnic riots in Xinjiang as a “genocide,” infuriating Beijing.

But Turkey’s ties with China warmed significantly after 2016, when Erdogan faced a failed coup and a chill in relations with the West. The following year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a visit to Beijing that Turkey would help China seize Uighur extremists, alarming Uighur activists and Turkish nationalists who view the ethnic minority as their Turkic kin.

So there you have it. Politicians around the world — and here at home, I must add — employ punishment and supportive verbiage to support their cynical goals.

You’re probably not shocked by this revelation, are you?

If only more journalists saw this for what it is. Which is politics in one of its creepiest manifestations. 

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