- The first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom opened Tuesday with a gathering of representatives of disparate faiths from all over the world
- Sam Brownback urged those present to form a coalition to fight religious persecution throughout the world
- A series of survivors of severe religious persecution addressed the ministerial as examples of the people groups who need the ministerial’s “faith in action”
The first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom opened Tuesday with a call for government officials and leaders of disparate faiths to fight together for global religious freedom.
Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, delivered the impassioned plea at the opening of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Brownback urged a “faith in action” from a coalition of government officials, civil society and faith leaders across the globe to lead an organized fight against religious persecution and systematic oppression of people of faith.
“This is the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that in our account and recollection and review of history has ever taken place,” Brownback opened.
He lauded the diversity of the those who had gathered at the ministerial to fight for religious freedom. Christians of various denominations, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i and many other faith traditions were represented. Brownback asserted that while religious freedom was a God-given right, much of the world lives today under persecution and oppression. He honored those present who had survived religious persecution. He referenced the militant Islamic violence in Nigeria, the persecution of Christians in Turkey, and the targeting of Yazidis in the Middle East. (RELATED: Turkey Defies US Demands, Rules American Pastor Will Stay Imprisoned)
The ambassador-at-large called for those present, and those who followed them, to partner together and actively fight for religious freedom worldwide.
“We need your faith in action to move the world to not just tolerance of differences, although that’s important, but unfortunately that bar is just too low,” Brownback said. “We must move to a place where people genuinely care and love one another no matter our differences. You must help us get there. Together, an alliance of government, civil society, and faith, we can and will advance religious freedom. With your engagement and leadership, we know that promotion of this universal human right will happen. Let’s get it done.”
Brownback asked attendees to be mindful of various religious groups around the world who currently face religious persecution either from their government or other religious and cultural forces within their respective countries and whose only source of hope, according to him, may be that leaders of different countries and faiths are working together to bring attention to their situations, starting at this ministerial.
Brownback then introduced representatives of Chinese Christians and Uyghur Muslims, two faith groups facing heavy persecution in China, and asked them to share testimonies of their respective plights as examples of people groups for whom those gathered at the ministerial were called to defend and of the kind of persecution they have been called to fight against.
Jane Powell spoke first, representing Christians in China by speaking of her husband, Rev. John Cao, who Chinese authorities arrested for crossing the border between China and Burma to aid ethnic minority groups in Burma’s Wa State, like the Kachin people. Cao previously worked to build schools for children and developed programs to help alleviate poverty in various communities, both in Burma and in China. Powell said that her husband built and operated schools with the utmost transparency and even handed the schools over to government authorities so that they could be further developed.
“Despite this, he was frequently questioned, subject to scrutiny and surveillance,” Powell said.
Powell asserted that Cao’s arrest along with another teacher on March 5, 2017 was motivated not by any actual crime, but by his Christian faith.
“It is clear to us now that John was set up for this arrest because of his faith driven work and accused of a fabricated crime — facilitating organized border crossing, a charge that is usually given to human traffickers,” Powell said.
Powell told attendees of the ministerial that under Chinese detainment over the last 17 months, her husband’s health has rapidly deteriorated.
“He has lost 50 pounds, he’s not been able to communicate with me and my children. My son and I traveled there, 10,000 miles, and we were not allowed to see him. The seven-year sentence he’s been unjustly [given] is now a matter of health and survival,” she said.
“So I ask for solidarity with my family against of the arrest of this pastor,” she added.
Powell ended her address with a reference to Amos 5:24, saying that God is just and that he calls mankind to be so as well.
“God is righteous and just. He calls for mankind to act with justice,” he said. “I ask that members of civil society and government officials take note of the imprisonment of people of faith in China. Please help protect them and speak out for them. Please remember Pastor John Cao, imprisoned in Yunan province, and others like him.”
Tahir Hamut, a poet and film director from the Xinjiang region in China, followed Powell, and shared via translator about the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of his people, the Uyghur Muslims.
“I am here today to tell you about how the Uygur population is now living in horror,” Hamut said. “Since late 2016, China has turned the Uyghur region into a police state, an open prison.”
The Chinese Communist Party has enacted policies and implemented security measures aimed at quelling the practice of Islam in the region, such as forbidding beards, barring children from religious instruction, forbidding fasting, and outlawing the selling of Korans. Hamut said authorities have also subjected the Uyghur population to mass surveillance of cell phones, “forced DNA collection,” and rounded up thousands of Uyghurs in “re-education camps.” Those outside the camps have no information about the whereabouts of their family members and loved ones who have been detained.
“I believe the Chinese government is likely to carry out mass killings of Uyghurs in concentration, like the Nazis did to Jewish people,” Hamut added after explaining that he, like all other Uyghur exiles, had no way of contacting his family or knowing whether they were alive or dead.
“I call on the international community, governments, and organizations to pay close attention to and raise their concerns about the Uyghur situation,” he said. “Urge the Chinese government to respect Uyghurs’ human rights, and support the protection of Uyghurs’ religious and ethnic identities and self determination.”
Hamut and Powell were the first of many eyewitnesses and survivors of religious persecution to share their testimonies at the ministerial.
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