Victims of religious persecution shared their stories of suffering Tuesday during the State Department's first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which brings together foreign ministers, religious leaders, and other stakeholders to discuss the issue of international religious freedom.
The ministerial featured two individuals on Tuesday with firsthand experience of religious persecution in China.
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Rev. John Cao is an Asian-American Christian minister who was arrested by the Chinese government in March of last year. His wife, Jamie Powell, was present at the ministerial to speak about his plight.
Cao has worked tirelessly to improve education in impoverished communities, according to his wife. In 2012, he visited the Kachin people of Myanmar and was shocked by the poverty and malnourishment he witnessed. He proceeded to develop a poverty alleviation program that included building new schools and going to door-to-door in an effort to discourage people from turning to drugs.
The Huffington Post reported Cao became a prominent figure in China’s house church movement, a practice the Chinese government has cracked down on.
John Cao, a 58-year-old native of China, converted to Christianity in his 20s. He married an American citizen, and his two sons are also American citizens. While he established a life in America, attending seminary in New York and pastoring two Chinese congregations in North Carolina, he felt called to be a missionary in his home country.
The pastor is a legal permanent resident of the U.S., but kept his Chinese citizenship in order to "facilitate ease of travel in and out of China," according to his supporters.
Over the years, he became a prominent figure in China’s house church movement. He founded more than a dozen schools in central and southern China, according to The Associated Press. At these schools, he reportedly gave students an education and training to be future Christian missionaries.
In March of 2017, Cao was arrested by Chinese border patrol forces while attempting to return to China. He was convicted of a crime typically reserved for human traffickers and received a seven-year prison sentence. Since being detained, his wife says, his health has declined rapidly and he has not been allowed to communicate with his family.
Tahir Hamut, an Uighur poet and filmmaker, also spoke to ministerial attendees. A Turkic people, approximately ten million Uighurs live in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China where they practice Islam.
He recounted how he was detained in 1996 while leaving China to study in Turkey. He was sentenced to three years in a labor camp on false charges. When he was released, he had lost his job and had to "live in a country in which the regime viewed me as an enemy."
Hamut outlined the suffering of the Uighurs in stark terms. "Since late 2016, China has turned the Uighur region into a police state, an open prison," he said. "The Chinese government is using advanced surveillance technologies, including AI, voice and face recognition, mass surveillance of cell phones and forced DNA collection to control Uighurs’ daily lives."
"There are unprecedented restrictions on the religious lives of Uighurs," he continued. "The government has confiscated and burned religious books and demolished mosques."
"The Chinese government has also sent Uighurs to so-called re-education camps, which are concentration camps," Hamut said. "Currently, more than one million Uighurs are held in these camps. There is no due process."
Hamut previously spoke to the Wall Street Journal about how the Chinese government targets the family members of Uighurs who leave the country.
Tahir Hamut, a prominent Uighur poet and filmmaker who spoke to The Wall Street Journal last year about his family’s harrowing flight from China’s Xinjiang region, said his younger brother disappeared on Christmas Day, shortly after the Journal article was published. Two female relatives were later called in for interrogation by the police.
Chinese security forces are using cutting-edge surveillance and social control to snuff out a sporadically violent separatist movement in Xinjiang. Authorities there are now reaching deeper into the lives of Muslim Uighurs who have fled abroad, according to rights groups.
Ramped-up efforts under President Xi Jinping to silence critics outside the reach of China’s police forces pose a challenge for Western powers like the U.S. that have held themselves up as protectors of Chinese citizens fleeing persecution.
Mr. Hamut said distrust runs rampant among Uighurs abroad, many of whom suspect each other of being spies for the Chinese government.
The poet and filmmaker also warned Tuesday that the situation is deteriorating: "I believe the Chinese government is likely to carry out mass killings of Uighurs in concentration like the Nazis did to Jewish people."