The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

State Department rebukes China as one of the worst abusers of religious freedom

A demonstrator at a December rally in Hong Kong. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

A State Department official singled out China on Wednesday as one of the world’s worst offenders of religious freedom, saying it backslid the most last year as thousands more people of faith were subjected to imprisonment and forced labor.

The accusation by Sam Brownback, the ambassador of international religious freedom, represented the latest salvo in an exchange of recriminations between Washington and Beijing. In recent months, tensions have grown as the two countries have sparred over the coronavirus, Hong Kong, press freedoms and trade. China has accused the United States of hypocrisy amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans who have died in police custody and the Trump administration’s response to massive demonstrations.

The State Department used Wednesday’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom to increase the crescendo of criticism of China, which has been designated a “country of particular concern” on religious freedom since 1999.

Asked which country had fallen behind in religious liberty in the past year, Brownback immediately named China but implicitly acknowledged that the United States has had a lot of harsh words for China these days.

“Maybe it sounds like a broken record,” he said. “But China is such a big player in this space, in such a negative way, that it’s hard to overlook. And they’re an exporter of their ways and their technology. If they weren’t an exporter, if they just did it to their own people, which is terrible in and of itself — but that’s one you just really can’t take your eyes off of.”

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The Chinese government recognizes five official religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism — that must register to hold worship services. In practice, many adherents face surveillance and persecution in a country where atheism is a requirement for membership in the ruling Communist Party.

In the lengthy section detailing China’s record, the State Department cited examples of people being arrested, sent to psychiatric wards and physically abused because of their religion.

“State-sponsored repression against all religions continues to intensify,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference to mark the annual report’s release.

“The Chinese Communist Party is now ordering religious organizations to obey CCP leadership and infused communist doctrine into the teachings and practice of their faith,” he said. “The mass detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang continues. So does the repression of Tibetans and Buddhists and Falun Gong and Christians.”

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The report also expressed the State Department’s concerns about rising violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities in India, a close U.S. ally that is often called the world’s most populous democracy. And Brownback mentioned that Saudi Arabia, another ally, is the only country in the world that does not allow a single church to function.

In many countries where freedom of religion is questioned, U.S. ambassadors and visiting diplomats have made a point of inviting religious leaders to U.S. missions for ceremonies during Ramadan, Passover and Easter. Embassies routinely post messages on their websites praising religious holidays.