How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting religious minorities in countries with poor human rights records?
Why is USCIRF particularly concerned about religious minorities in China?
In this episode, we sit down with Nadine Maenza, Vice Chair of USCIRF.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Nadine Maenza, it’s so wonderful to have you finally on American Thought Leaders.
Nadine Maenza: It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Mr. Jekielek: We saw each other quite recently, just before the capital was shut down, at an event organized by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. The event was about forced organ harvesting in China. And it turned out that this actually is connected to coronavirus. There had just been the double lung transplant that had been performed on very short notice in China and used as propaganda. The CCP called it the first ever COVID double lung transplant. This was very disturbing to you. Tell me what you were thinking.
Ms. Maenza: The US Commission on International Religious Freedom—we call ourselves USCIRF for short—has been reporting on organ harvesting in China since 2007. So it is a concern. Of course, it started in the Falun Gong community and other prisoners of conscience. And so this wasn’t a new story for us, but it was still very concerning to hear that this could be happening now with the coronavirus.
Mr. Jekielek: Why was this double lung transplant of particular note, in your mind?
Ms. Maenza: The only way that a double lung transplant like they advertised can be that quickly available to people, as if they’re coming from prisoners, and normally it’s been religious prisoners in China. So when we heard that news, immediately we had to consider: Is it coming from religious prisoners of conscience, the Falun Gong, the Uyghurs that are being held? Also, this proved that the coronavirus is having an impact on religious communities in China. So to us, hearing this news was very concerning.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s dive into this then this organ harvesting just for a moment, because I’m not sure all the viewers are familiar as you and I are with this whole story. On March 1, the China Tribunal, which has been studying all the evidence available, said that “forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that following Gong practitioners have been one and probably the main source of organ supply. The concerted persecution and medical testing of Uighurs is more recent, and maybe that evidence of forced organ harvesting in this group may emerge in due course. The tribunal has had no evidence that the significant infrastructure associated with China’s transplantation industry has been dismantled, and absent a satisfactory explanation as to the source of readily available organs, concludes that forced organ harvesting continues till today.” So I suppose that those lungs, transported in seven hours on a high-speed train, according to Chinese state media, is a testament to exactly this finding on March 1.
Ms. Maenza: The Chinese government said in 2015 that they had banned the practice of organ harvesting. And we all know better that we shouldn’t be taking China at its word because there are so many cases of this horrible practice continuing even to this day, which the China Tribunal documented. And clearly, maybe more so because of the coronavirus.
Mr. Jekielek: Can you roughly explain what’s actually happening?
Ms. Maenza: Sure. We found in the Uighur community, especially just because this has been documented pretty well, that immediately upon arrest, the [jailors] take their blood, DNA samples, and we know this for lots of prisoners. Of course, first was the Falun Gong was really the focus of this, and part of the reason is because of the healthy lifestyle of the Falun Gong. So they were actually sought after. Their organs were sought after uniquely because of their lifestyle. And then now we see with a million-plus Uighurs in concentration camps, that all of their blood was taken, all their DNA was taken. And, it appears they’re on standby for these types of crimes.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you make of China’s official numbers that there are only 76 coronavirus cases, and three deaths in Xinjiang?
Ms. Maenza: I think that has to be impossible. You know, we’ve seen what has happened in China with these numbers and with the high concentration of [Uighur prisoners]. I would find that difficult to believe.
Mr. Jekielek: So you said that you’ve been studying organ harvesting since 2007. And, that is quite the length of time because we only really became aware of it in 2006. What has been the change since 2007 to today?
Ms. Maenza: I think there’s been more information that has come out since then. But the US Commission has been following this since the very beginning, and including it in our annual reports. And the consistency of this has been troubling. In the early years very few of us were reporting about this and the news was not covering it, either. But the years continued and more information came out. Recently there was a breach of information documenting a lot of the Uighur movements and how many Uighurs were in these concentration camps. So it just opened up the door even further that this is on a much larger scale than anyone had ever anticipated.
Mr. Jekielek: Because the Uighurs are captive and isolated in Xinjiang, they present a particularly vulnerable population.
Ms. Maenza: They do, and we’ve seen other prisoners of conscience also joined in this group. We’ve heard reports of even Han Chinese who have been friendly to Uighurs being included in these camps. So we know that the violations of religious freedom against either religious minorities, or those have helped religious minorities, is really broad throughout the entire country, but particularly in that region.
Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me briefly what the USCIRF does. It’s been around since the late ’90s, from what I understand. I think a lot of Americans might not even be aware of your existence or what you’ve been doing.
Ms. Maenza: The US Commission on International Religious Freedom was created 20 years ago, at the same time that the Office of International Religious Freedom was created at the State Department. Congress really had foresight to understand the importance of having this independent agency. We are led by nine commissioners that are appointed by both the President, as well as Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. So we’re very much bipartisan. And we have a staff of about twenty. And what we do is assess real religious freedom conditions abroad, and we make recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and to Congress. And we do that in an independent way.
When the State Department looks at countries, they really consider the bilateral relationship of a country in terms of their actions. So when looking at China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or other countries that we’ve identified have religious freedom violations, we at USCIRF are laser-focused on only religious freedom, so we call a spade a spade. We are able to also move quickly, get reports out quickly without very many people having to approve them. And so we’re able to really draw attention to crimes that are happening almost in real-time or immediately after in a way that’s more difficult for the State Department. So they both have important roles, but we’re unique in the sense that our focus is on religious freedom. So at this moment, the State Department is looking at coronavirus in a lot of different levels, and we’re single-focused on how it’s impacting religious freedom.
Mr. Jekielek: I was just looking through the USCIRF Twitter before we did this interview, and I saw you had some very recent information about the situation in Burma or Myanmar, and the Rohingya people. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Ms. Maenza: We are definitely concerned with the worsening conditions in the Rakhine State. In August 2017, the government attacked the Rohingya Muslims, and over 700,000 of them fled to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and they’re now in these refugee camps with over a million people there, but there are still citizens left in the Rakhine state. And the conditions for them are really horrible. Currently, we understand that the internet has been shutting down so it’s difficult for them to communicate with their families. And we also understand military operations are still occurring against them. So during the pandemic, we are asking the Myanmar government to turn the internet back on and to cease all hostilities against their citizens.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the key points is the idea that freedom of religion or belief may not be suspended in times of public emergency. This is why you put out this coronavirus factsheet. But tell me more, what are the dangers that can happen in these sorts of situations?
Ms. Maenza: We want to make it clear that freedom of religion is not derogated during a public emergency, or even during war, so you never lose the right to practice your faith, to have that freedom of religion or belief. There is international law from both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. They both allow the limitations in certain situations, and obviously public health would be one of those, but it’s important that it narrowly limits religious freedom on public health grounds only, and it’s tailored to this threat. And that it’s non-discriminatory. [For example,] we don’t want to see religious houses of worship closing in certain areas, and not in others. One of our biggest concerns is that some of these restrictions may last longer than the pandemic does. So we see increased surveillance and closing of houses of worship. We would hope that when the pandemic is behind us that those change, that they go back to the way they were. We’re also seeing marginalization of religious communities, and we just want to send the word that the US government is watching and hoping that the marginalization of religious communities doesn’t happen just because of this virus.
Mr. Jekielek: You have certain countries that you’re particularly interested because the violations of freedom of religion are so egregious. Can you briefly tell me what those are?
Ms. Maenza: The State Department every year puts out their countries of particular concern, and those are countries where the religious freedom violations are egregious, systematic, and ongoing. So they meet all three of those criteria. We at the US commission recommendations to the State Department for what countries we believe should be on that list. And we have a tier-two list of countries that meet one or two of the criteria, and so the State Department also has a watch list. So, we recommend many more countries than the State Department has decided to [include]. For instance, the State Department has 10 countries on their countries of particular concern list, while we make recommendations for 16. They have three on their watch list; we have 12 that we recommend on the watch list. So we have a little bit of a different perspective on some of the countries. We agree on some of the ones that you could probably guess: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia. But some of the other countries that we recommend uniquely, like Nigeria, Vietnam, others, as being countries of particular concern, even though the State Department hasn’t designated them that.
In our report, we mentioned that South Korea, you know, even though they’ve been seen as a success story during the coronavirus, there was a situation where about two-thirds of the cases traceable came back to one person from the Shincheonji church, which is a church of a religious community that’s already marginalized. They’re very secretive in South Korea. So, because they were able to point to that one church, where they happened to be meeting. It could have been any church where this virus spread first, but it was in this particular church. So over a million citizens have signed a petition to try to shut the church down, trying to accuse the pastor of homicide, things like that. Some scapegoating can happen in times of fear, and we’re just trying to make sure religious communities aren’t picked out and marginalized simply because of the fear that can exist in these kinds of situations.
Mr. Jekielek: I noticed that on your coronavirus fact sheet, China is at the top of the list. What did you find there? And why is it there?
Ms. Maenza: We’re especially concerned about China because they have these huge amounts of religious prisoners. We know how they’ve treated their religious prisoners in the past, and the way that they have treated the Uighur community in these huge concentration camps of over a million people. We know that they’re especially susceptible to the coronavirus in these conditions. And we also know that we’re not getting the truth out of China about how they’re treating their religious minority. So we’re especially concerned about China right now.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s astounding to me that there would even be the suggestion that there’s only 76 cases and three deaths in these highly concentrated situations where social distancing isn’t remotely possible.
Ms. Maenza: It’s concerning to us that there’s so little information about what’s really happening in these refugee camps or concentration camps. We know that Uighurs have been used for forced labor in a lot of the factories to make up for those who are sick with coronavirus. So it’s hard to imagine the conditions that these Uighurs and other religious prisoners are having to deal with right now in China.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you make of the fact that even larger media that had been active in China—like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post—have now been ejected completely?
Ms. Maenza: It makes it even more difficult for us to figure out what is happening when there isn’t a journalist on the ground. It should point to the fact that they’re definitely not wanting us to see the truth.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me more of what you found, and why you selected these countries as a focus on the coronavirus fact sheet.
Ms. Maenza: We wanted to paint the picture of how religious freedom is being impacted by the coronavirus. You have Saudi Arabia closing Mecca and Medina. … There’s been a struggle that not all of the religious communities have wanted the closing of these mosques and places of worship. In Kuwait, they’re doing “pray in your home” instead of a call to prayer to come. …We see the closing of houses of worship throughout the entire world. Pope Francis delivered a blessing to the city and to the world standing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square, with only an online audience. It’s difficult to process how it’s affected religious communities. Our factsheet is to point out that these are existing—not criticizing, because we know public health is a real concern.
We want to make it clear that religious communities are being affected by these changes, and that we want governments to consider that, and also to work with religious communities in how they address the coronavirus. They’ll have better outcomes because religious communities can be really terrific partners in communicating information, because it’s hard for people to understand what’s real and what’s not—what’s true news versus fear-mongering. People have trusted relationships with their religious leaders. So being partnered with the states to communicate and work together makes a lot of sense.
Mr. Jekielek: Does USCIRF actually have any teeth to affect anything?
Ms. Maenza: We’re watching our recommendations and seeing which ones are being taken by the government. We have seen quite a few of our recommendations be embraced recently. You know, we made recommendations that the US government should train other countries in helping them to protect their houses of worship. And we’ve seen the US government do just that, and work with other governments to help them learn best practices for how to protect their houses of worship.
One particular example that comes to mind is Uzbekistan. I was able to visit in the fall and interact with their government. I’ve met with their ambassador several times. Seeing them move towards religious freedom has been very encouraging. … I want to make the point that we don’t hold countries to the US standard for religious freedom. So when we’re interacting with a government, … what we’re asking is for them to fit the benchmark internationally for religious freedom. And it’s exciting when we do see those countries that are moving towards those. We have been working at the commission to better monitor our recommendations, and how many of those are being followed by our own government. So hopefully in the coming years, we’ll be better at being able to report when we are making an actual difference.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s also this element of countries being aware that the US government is watching.
Ms. Maenza: With and so much communication being shared online on social media, especially right now with everyone being quarantined. We just found out yesterday that a pastor had been arrested in Nepal for suggesting that that prayer could cure people of coronavirus. We’re starting to pick up and watch these sorts of situations, and just caution governments to not lash out at religious communities for these kinds of situations.
Mr. Jekielek: Could you give me a few examples of impact on egregious violators?
Ms. Maenza: Not long ago, Saudi Arabia had executed about thirty Shias. And we are upset about that. The State Department communicates those things as well to the government, but we also interact with some governments directly. We don’t do diplomacy, but a lot of governments want to make the case that they’re not as bad as our reports have indicated. A lot of them don’t want us to continue to report on them, so they do reach out to us with their information. And we’re able to share with them the things that we would want to see, if they were to be removed from our reporting—things that they would need to change in order to get off our list. Some countries are very open to that. Other countries don’t accept that very well. It just depends. In this situation, we’ll continue to do the same. We’ll immediately speak into them publicly, will communicate with the embassy, will communicate with the State Department, and we’ll make sure that we make it clear that we are watching these things happen. … Most people don’t know how much we do behind the scenes. We do a lot of private letters, a lot of private meetings. Not long ago, we were able to negotiate a prisoner of consciousness release. And that was never made public. That is the highlight of my time at the commission. We do a lot behind the scenes when we’re able to, and then, if it’s more important or more effective to do it publicly, we’ll do that as well.
Mr. Jekielek: How does China respond to your letters or calls for action and so forth?
Ms. Maenza: We have not been dialoguing with the government of China. They’re not open to our negotiations. We still do statements. We know they receive them, but unfortunately, we do not have a direct relationship with the government, and they’ve not engaged with us on religious freedom.
Mr. Jekielek: Nadine, tell me a little bit about your personal motivation to be involved in all of this. What drives you?
Ms. Maenza: I’ve been involved in religious freedom advocacy for quite a few years. I was chairman of an organization called Hardwired Global that does training with religious freedom around the world, raising of advocates. I had especially worked in Iraq, and had been able to visit there a few times during the genocide of Yazidis and Christians. And you see that all religious minorities need to be embraced the same way because there’s really religious freedom for all or for none—you can’t really prioritize one group. … It prepared me for my work here at USCIRF.
I was able to visit northeast Syria just this past November after Turkey had invaded. I saw what the Commission had been watching for a couple of years now. In northeast Syria, the government that formed there in 2012 has democratic principles very different than the way the USA would approach democracy, but nevertheless, a place that has real legitimacy. We found freedom of religion there, and we’ve spoken about it in quite a few of our reports. … It’s one of the few places where people can proselytize; change their religion. It’s a place where Syriac Christians and Armenian Christians live peacefully along Kurds that are Muslims, Arabs that are Muslims. It’s multilingual … some churches are still done in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. And so this was a really unique place that I was excited to find.
I’ve also been able to visit the Nineveh plains. You hear the story of how hard it has been for religious minorities who return to Iraq, because of the Iranian presence, the militias, the hostile environment for religious minorities. And it’s been a real passion for me to be able to fight for these spaces to be a place where religious minorities can live. Just having a place where freedom exists is a really powerful weapon against extremism. In Northeast Syria you have a place where freedom exists right on the border of countries that we consider countries of particular concern—Syria, Iran. And, being right there and seeing how freedom can look, and how religious freedom can be freely practiced is, I think, an important thing for this region of the world.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s an incredible story. I will have to talk about this more sometime.
Ms. Maenza: I’d love to.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you expect the USCIRF is going to be doing over the coming weeks and months as the pandemic spreads?
Ms. Maenza: We will continue to be paying attention to the stories we’re hearing coming out of these countries about the way religious minorities are being treated, and we’ll report on it. …We’ll be calling out the governments to change the way that they’re interacting with their religious communities. … USCIRF is unique in that we don’t look domestically. [That prevents us from being used as] a political tool. There is no daylight between a republican or democratic commissioner. It’s really been encouraging to see that bipartisan work, and people that are bipartisan can work together on issues like this. And so we’ll continue to do that and call out on religious violations as we see them. We hope that we’re able to put aside different issues we don’t agree on and work on the ones we agree on, because I think most people agree more than they disagree.
Mr. Jekielek: Nadine Maenza, such a pleasure to have you.
Ms. Maenza: Thank you. It’s such it’s been great being here. Thank you so much for your attention on these matters.