WASHINGTON—The stories of religious persecution provided the most powerful testimony at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a three-day event hosted by the State Department.
Tahir Hamut is a film director and poet who grew up in Kashgar in the southeast part of the Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is a province in China.
Since 1949, when the communists took over the country, the Uyghurs, a Muslim community, have been persecuted for their ethnicity and religious beliefs.
From 1996 to 1999, Hamut was held in a so-called re-education through labor camp, really a concentration camp, on false charges of being affiliated with terrorism. He described that he witnessed on Sep. 3, 2009, Chinese immigrants attacking Uyghurs on the streets and that he himself was severely beaten and injured.
He now lives in Washington, having fled China for fear that he would be again detained in one of the concentration camps.
Today, however, the situation has worsened; the Uyghur population is living in horror, he said through his translator. “The Chinese government is using vast surveillance techniques, such as AI [artificial intelligence], voice and face recognition, [monitoring] cell phones, and forced DNA collection, to control Uyghurs’ daily life.”
He said, “The Chinese government has confiscated and burned religious books and demolished mosques.” Activities that used to be legal are now illegal.
Hamut said that currently, more than 1 million Uyghurs are being held in the concentration camps. They don’t know what they are charged with; there is no due process. “We hear people are suffering from illness and dying in these camps,” he said.
“I believe the Chinese government is likely to carry out mass killings of Uyghurs … like the Nazis did to the Jewish people.”
Pastor Andrew Brunson is a U.S. citizen who has been imprisoned in Turkey for almost two years, as he awaits trial.
He was arrested on Oct. 7, 2016, in Turkey on allegations that he posed a threat to national security. Two months later, he was charged with being a member of an armed terrorist organization, which his daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, said was “absurd and false.”
No evidence has been forthcoming to justify the charges against Brunson. For 23 years, Brunson had been attending a small Protestant church in the coastal city of Ismir. He says his sole mission in life is being a minister for Jesus Christ.
Brunson is facing a 35-year sentence. The judge has ruled that he won’t be able to bring any witnesses to his defense. When the 62-page indictment finally came after a year and half following his detention, his crime was “Christianization,” equating the preaching of Christianity “to terrorism and espionage,” said his daughter.
After a year passed, the family was allowed to briefly visit him and came away much distressed at his condition. He had lost 50 pounds. He has been permanently damaged from the experience and will never be the same, said Furnari.
“He has lost hope wondering why Turkey, a NATO ally, a country he loves and served for over two decades, has been able to hold him hostage, an innocent United States citizen for nearly two years,” Furnari said.
On July 25, the Turkish court has ordered Brunson moved from prison to house arrest, as he awaits the next hearing of his trial on Oct. 12.
Reflecting on the accounts given at the summit, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said: “I want to recognize the survivors of religious persecution who are with us here today. We honor your personal courage, your depth of conviction, and that you have done so in spite of great violence done to yourselves and to your families. God bless you.”
Pompeo said that having the survivors of religious persecution share their stories drove home why the work done at the summit was so important.
“Millions of people of all faiths are suffering every day,” Pompeo said. “But the Trump administration will not be silent.”