A person takes part in a 2018 protest march in Brussels of ethnic Uyghurs asking for the European Union to call upon China to respect human rights in the Xinjiang region and ask for the closure of 're-education centers' where Uyghurs are detained. (Photo: AFP)
Beijing has dismissed Pope Francis’ criticism of its treatment of China's Muslim Uyghur minority as groundless and insisted that all ethnic minorities are protected and treated equally.
About 1.1 million Uyghurs are interned by China in the Xinjiang region for what it insists is a government-led campaign to stamp out terrorists, but human rights activists say the reality is more like laojiao, the brutal labor camps that emerged under Mao Zedong and were not abolished until late 2013.
Activists have been urging the pope to speak out in favor of the Uyghurs but the Vatican had been reluctant after it entered into a secret pact over the appointment of bishops with Beijing in 2018.
In his 150-page, wide-ranging book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, the pope writes that “I think often of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uyghurs, the Yazidi” in a section dedicated to persecution in Islamic countries.
The book is due out on Dec. 1 and is a collaboration with his English-language biographer Austen Ivereigh. It was the first time the pope had mentioned Uyghurs as persecuted people.
But in China, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the pope's remarks were “groundless” and had “no factual basis at all.”
“People of all ethnic groups enjoy the full rights of survival, development and freedom of religious belief,” Zhao said at a daily briefing on Nov. 24.
Uyghurs are mostly of Muslim Turkic ethnicity and regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations and Turkey.
The majority live in China’s Xinjiang region, where they number about 11 million or around 45 percent of the population.
China has faced allegations of genocide amid reports it has forced Uyghur women to be sterilized or fitted with contraceptive devices, apparently to control population growth. Large numbers of the majority Han Chinese have also been encouraged to move to Xinjiang.
Pope Francis also urged governments to consider a universal basic income whereby each citizen receives a fixed amount of money without conditions. He said economic, social and political changes were needed to address inequalities once the coronavirus pandemic is curbed.
“Recognizing the value to society of the work of non-earners is a vital part of our rethinking in the post-Covid world. That’s why I believe it is time to explore concepts like the universal basic income,” he said.
“By providing a universal basic income, we can free and enable people to work for the community in a dignified way.”