Refugees Escaping Religious Persecution in China: What Would Europe Do?

Few today in Europe would really believe that China is a democratic country where human rights are respected. A well-informed and free-thinking European citizen would know that there is no religious liberty in China. Although in fact all religions suffer, Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims living in Xinjiang are among the most severely persecuted. Almost every day the media is providing us with horrifying facts. We, the European public, already know that several million Uyghurs are detained in the so-called transformation through education camps. We are not convinced, despite Chinese propaganda, that these camps are merely “vocational schools,” or nice places to spend free time.  China insists that the camps are a necessity for preventing the radicalization of Xinjiang Muslims. The truth is different. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is trying to eradicate the distinctive ethnic and linguistic identity—not only the religious one—of Uyghurs and other Turkic people, in its effort to “sinicize” all the Chinese population.

While the tragedy of the Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong is well-known, only recently Europeans have started hearing about a Christian new religious movement known as The Church of Almighty God (CAG). In fact, it is the single most persecuted religious movement in China. Although some scholars believe the figure may be exaggerated, and obtaining precise statistics is impossible, the Chinese government itself declared that the CAG has four million members.

What is certain is that CAG is a fast-growing group, whose ideas many Chinese regard as attractive. Probably, this is the very reason why the group is so systematically persecuted. In China and abroad, the CAG is also opposed by some other Christian churches. They regard as heterodox its theology, which maintains that Christ has returned to Earth and has appeared as a Chinese woman, worshiped as Almighty God. They are also afraid of competition, since the CAG has been very successful in converting members of other Christian churches. While theological criticism is understandable, supporting the Chinese government’s abuse and persecution of the CAG is inadmissible, both for Christian churches and for those who observe the situation in China from abroad.

This is particularly true for the European Union, an alliance of States based until now on the principle of shared values, where human rights were an essential part of common action. Until now, EU member States have been guardians and most active advocates of universal human rights. Today, unfortunately, confronted with an unprecedented economic and financial might of China, this principled stance of our countries has started to erode.

While China is cynically abusing the basic rights of its citizens, no major individual State of the European Union has come forward to openly criticize the crimes the CCP commits against its own people. There have been some critical statements under the safe umbrella of the European Union, but none by individual States. 

It is not a secret that CCP leaders and their families are exceptionally wealthy. Consequently, they are detached from everyday life and the challenges of the so-called working class, which they, at least in theory, are supposed to protect and represent. It is a strange Marxism, where the Chinese leadership picks and choose what it likes and forgets the rest.

One Marxist tenet the CCP still believes in, is that religion is not compatible with the interests of Communism and the “working classes.” Any religious group or movement that is not explicitly approved by the CCP becomes illegal. Fast-growing groups are particularly targeted. Torture is routinely used. More persecution and more torture also mean more people escaping China and seeking political asylum abroad.

In Europe, we are used to wealthy Chinese tourists buying expensive luxury goods. Chinese refugees who seek asylum because they were severely persecuted for their religion are less visible. But there are thousands of them. As of September 2019, there are in the European Union countries and Switzerland 2,405 refugees from The Church of Almighty God—and more Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, members of Protestant house churches, and Falun Gong. Most of those who seek asylum in Europe have been jailed, tortured, followed and monitored before escaping to Europe. Few of them were just the lucky ones who happened to have a passport and were fortunate enough to get a visa. Most of them will never be able to escape. Some will spend their whole lives in jails or re-education camps. Others will be tortured to death or simply “disappear.”

Those lucky enough to be released will be monitored and followed, and told that they should never meet again with their co-religionists, or else. They will lose their jobs and their families, and their health too, because of deep psychological trauma.

I have met refugees from the CAG in several different countries. Their spirit is not broken, only because they strongly believe in God. That belief prevented them from losing their minds. But the trauma remains, and only becomes worse when their true stories are not believed and asylum is denied; unfortunately a frequent occurrence in Europe. European Union States should raise their voice against religious persecution in China. But there is something they can do immediately: open their arms to those escaping from China, where the only crime they committed was believing in God and practicing their religion.

President of the International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees (ORLIR).