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US-China showdown over religion may intensify

The global superpowers are both using religion but for different purposes

US-China showdown over religion may intensify

US President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Nov. 15. (Photo: AFP)

In the US-China rivalry that involves a complex mix of diplomacy, trade wars and sanctions, religion has come under increased pressure after the communist regime banned online propagation of religion by foreign nationals, purportedly to make religion more Chinese-oriented.

On Dec. 22, China finally put the last nail in the coffin of modern ways of religious propagation by issuing a new norm that proscribes all foreign institutions and individuals from spreading religious content online. Expected of an undemocratic government, China cited national security interests for enacting the new law.

The new rules, titled Measures for the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services, were made two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a national religious work conference.

In his address on Dec. 4, Xi stressed making religions Chinese in orientation and developing them in the Chinese context. The regulations are the first of their kind to monitor online religious affairs.

On Dec. 21, China barred the entry of four members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) following US sanctions against human rights abuses in Xinjiang province where detention camps are being operated by China to house Uyghur Muslims.

It all started with former US president Donald Trump declaring on his last day in office on Jan. 20, 2021, that China was committing crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghur Muslims by curtailing their religious freedom and putting them into detention camps.

Besides the alleged arbitrary detention of more than one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, forced sterilizations and a crackdown on religious freedom were cited by Joe Biden

Thus, the US became the first country to apply sanctions against China. The relations further nosedived after Trump left the Oval Office. Beijing retaliated by imposing counter-sanctions on 28 of his administration’s former officials, including Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state.

Besides the alleged arbitrary detention of more than one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, forced sterilizations and a crackdown on religious freedom were cited by Joe Biden, the new Catholic president, when he announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics to be held next month.

USCIRF, a federal entity that evaluates policies for countries where religious freedom is facing threats and troubles, planned to visit China to get first-hand information.

But on Dec. 21, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese government spokesman, said the chair, vice-chair and two commissioners of USCIRF were banned from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Their assets in China are frozen and institutions and citizens are forbidden to deal with them, he added.

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USCIRF has been vocal in its criticism of China, especially the communist regime’s policies on religious freedom. When the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games in Beijing was announced, Nury Turkel, vice-chair of USCIRF, reacted by saying that “… a genocidal regime should not have been granted the privilege to host the Olympics in the first place.”

China’s “systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom” against the Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and Falun Gong practitioners “betray the Olympic spirit,” Turkel observed.

Religious freedom in China was also taken up by the UN, which cited a report by London-based lawyers on genocide and religious freedom abuses against the Uyghur minority.

The report, compiled at the request of the exiled World Uyghur Congress, “is deeply disturbing” in ts claims about the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Rupert Colville, a UN rights office spokesman, said while clarifying that the UN had yet to verify the report.

China denies abuses in Xinjiang and says its policies and detention camps are meant for vocational training and to curb Islamic extremism

According to the panel, China’s rulers want to destroy the religious identity of Uyghur Muslims “through population control measures and as such had committed genocide.”

Beijing dismissed the report, saying the World Uyghur Congress had “paid for liars” in an attempt “to concoct a political tool to smear China.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has sought to visit Xinjiang for years to verify the prosecution of Uyghur Muslims on religious grounds, but the spokesman said so far no such visit had been made possible by the Chinese government.

China denies abuses in Xinjiang and says its policies and detention camps are meant for vocational training and to curb Islamic extremism.

Both China and the US are using religion but for different purposes.

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