Uyghur-American lawyer Nury Turkel, is a vice-chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan and independent federal government body. As the chairman of the board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) in Washington, he has played a major role in raising awareness of the plight of the 12 million Uyghurs in the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). On Friday, a day after the inaugural three-day International Religious Freedom Summit (IRF) in Washington, where senior U.S. government officials focused heavily on China’s targeting of Uyghurs in XUAR in a crackdown on the minority group and its language, religion, and culture that intensified in 2017, Turkel and other USCIRF commissioners met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Turkel, who this year was named by Fortune magazine as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” shared his views on the U.S. approach to the Uyghur issue and global religious freedom issues with RFA Uyghur Service Director Alim Seytoff in a video interview. The interview has been edited for length.
RFA: Secretary Blinken has met with your commission, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, right after the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington. What was the purpose of Secretary Blinken's meeting with your commission?
Nury Turkel: Secretary Blinken has been pointing out in his public statements that human rights and democracy are at the forefront of the administration's foreign policy objectives, and has been displayed at the IRF Summit, religious freedom and human rights issues have been receiving bipartisan support. Former Secretary (Mike) Pompeo came to speak, as did USAID administrator Samantha Power, as well as Secretary Blinken. They've all in a concerted fashion lent support to those who have been subject to religious persecution around the world. For the United States government, speaking out whenever, wherever religious persecution happens, is not only a moral obligation. It's our treaty obligation and legal obligation, because we know that when we fail to speak out, bad actors get the wrong idea and are emboldened to persecute vulnerable religious and ethnic groups.
For the USCIRF, religious freedom in China is a grave concern. Since 1999, the commission has designated China as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). In 2020, we have seen a serious deterioration of religious freedom in China, especially for practitioners or believers of Abrahamic religions –Muslims and Christians specifically. And we are very concerned that the Chinese authorities perceiving and treating Uyghur Muslims and Chinese Christians as a source of future political unrest or political opposition. Also they are perceiving Abrahamic religion faithful as disloyal to the Communist Party and a potential challenge to the party. It is very clear that the Communist Party, the Xi Jinping administration, will not tolerate any Western influence -- religious freedom, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. So we are gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in China.
RFA: During today’s meeting with Secretary Blinken, did he express any concerns over China's genocide of the Uyghurs?
Nury Turkel: Secretary Blinken, as he has in public, reiterated the Biden administration's commitment to religious freedom and human rights issues. He specifically highlighted that United States government and Biden administration are concerned about the situation involving the Yazidis (in Iraq), Rohingya Muslims (in Myanmar) and Uyghur Muslims, and also the deteriorating situation in Nigeria, as well as in India. The U.S. position on Uyghur religious freedom and the genocide have been officially formalized in public statements and documents. As you aware, the State Department Human Rights Report and International Religious Freedom Report, the Eli Wiesel Genocide Act Report, and the Anti-Trafficking report have all highlighted the Uyghur genocide.
Recognizing genocide is one thing, but the Biden administration, to its credit, has taken a number of steps to make this is a global concern, including homing in on China's economic interests, as well as adding new entities to the U.S. Commerce Department’s entities list for targeted sanctions. Just two days ago, the Biden administration released the Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisor. And most significantly, an executive order cut off American investment in select Chinese technologies. From my personal and professional perspective, these are significant steps. Because at the end of the day, religious freedom, human rights, legal genocide cannot be properly handled, cannot be properly prevented, simply by sending messages to bad actors around the world. If we fail to take bold actions, recognition is merely a step in the right direction. Coherent, persistent policy responses will bring a change to the horrific situation, for example, that is happening as we speak in Communist China.
So the United States is on the right track. We commend both the Trump administration and the Biden administration, calling the CCP out for its brutal policies and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. We also have been advocating and also publicly commending both administration for going after China's economic and technological interests. China is using its economic influence to harass global businesses, and also to buy silence. At the same time, they are using this technological advantages to expand their influence operations around the world.
RFA: During the meeting today, did you or any members of the commission express your concerns over China's genocide of Uyghur --especially the targeting of Uyghur people's religious faith? Did anyone urge the administration to take further measures, such as boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics and other steps?
As part of the USCIRF’s ongoing advice and an ongoing policy recommendations, we have been advising and urging the executive branch of the U.S. government, as well as the Congress, that the Beijing Olympics next year should not happen. We want the Olympics to be relocated. We want the Olympics to be boycotted diplomatically if relocation, or even postponement, doesn’t happen. We shared these concerns with Secretary Blinken today.
We also are very concerned that the Chinese are using Uyghur-American families, for example, as leverage against their families in the XUAR or vice versa. We have urged the Biden administration to prioritize Uyghur-American families, to ensure that the Chinese will not get a free pass or get away with ongoing harassment of American citizens, American government contractors, or U.S. officials who have spoken out against human rights abuses simply as part of doing their own jobs.
RFA: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners about this meeting?
Nury Turkel: The United States government, including my own agency, should continue to work with like-minded governments and international partners to call the Chinese government out for its abusive policies. And we should seek ways to hold to account those bad actors, those abusers, who are responsible for the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity.
Translated by Alim Seytoff.