China to Require all Places of Worship to fly the National Flag, Expanding Xinjiang Policy

State-sanctioned religious associations in China have proposed a measure that would require all places of worship to fly the national flag, according to state media, in an expansion of a similar policy enforced on mosques in the largely Muslim Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) last year that drew strong criticism from the main Uyghur exile group as at attack on freedom of belief.

China to Require all Places of Worship to fly the National Flag, Expanding Xinjiang Policy
Hiroki OgawaCC BY 3.0

The report, published on Tuesday by the official Global Times newspaper, followed an earlier article detailing a new pilot program through which the Islamic Association of China (IAC) will outfit Muslim Chinese nationals making the holy “hajj” pilgrimage with GPS tracking devices, ostensibly to ensure their safety during the trip.

“All religious venues should raise China’s national flag to strengthen awareness of respect to the flag and preserve the flag’s dignity,” the Global Times reported of the measure, which it said was proposed by representatives of national religious groups, including the IAC, the Buddhist Association of China, the Taoist Association of China, and the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

According to the measure, which was proposed by the representatives at a conference in Beijing on Tuesday, the flag should be raised at religious venues during national holidays and “important festivals and celebrations of each religion … while simultaneously raising religious flags” and placed “before religious flags in the row.”

It also includes the raising of national flag as “an evaluation index in the activities of selecting harmonious temples or churches,” the report said, suggesting that places of worship which do not follow the practice could face official scrutiny.

Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, told RFA Thursday that requiring places of worship to raise China’s “atheist flag” is “an attack on all religions” in the country.

“This is an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to place atheism above all religions and turn religious venues into communist propaganda centers,” he said.

“This tramples the religious freedom of all believers and violates China’s Constitution, which guarantees that freedom.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the Global Times published an article noting that more than 11,000 Chinese Muslims are heading to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia as part of official groups for a month-long hajj pilgrimage this year, and that their organizers from the IAC will provide them with special GPS devices that will “make the trip better and safer.”

“If the pilgrim gets lost or encounters an emergency situation, organizers from the association will receive an alarm from an app installed on their mobile phone,” the report said, citing a staffer with the IAC who asked to remain anonymous, and is accompanying a group of 500 pilgrims this year.

“Using the GPS, the app can also help Chinese organizers see the real-time location of the pilgrims, which organizers say will help facilitate management of the activity,” the Global Times quoted her as saying.

While only 3,300 pilgrims will be wearing the card, and no residents from the XUAR will take part in the pilot program this year, the report said, it quoted IAC staffer Ma Mingyue as saying that “new functions for the device are under development and the card will be used by more pilgrims in the future.”

Eva Pils, a China human rights expert at King’s College London, told the Wall Street Journal in a recent article that the GPS devices are another example of China’s efforts to monitor its Muslim population using modern surveillance tools.

“This is yet-another way of persecuting Muslims for practicing their religion, by suggesting that they require to be monitored rather like criminal suspects or persons serving a suspended prison sentence,” Pils told the Journal.

Harsh policies

The two reports appear to expand on an existing string of harsh policies attacking the rights and freedoms of ethnic Uyghur Muslim residents of the XUAR enacted since Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August 2016.

Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.

Previous reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service found that in June last year authorities enacted a policy in the mostly Uyghur-populated Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture as part of a bid to assimilate members of the ethnic group in the area, requiring caretakers of mosques to fly the national flag of China atop the buildings.

The caretakers were also ordered to remove inscriptions of Islam’s holiest verse, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” from mosque walls and replace them with large red banners that read “Love the [Communist] Party, Love the Country” in yellow writing.

Other policies implemented last year included orders for ethnic minority Muslim families to hand in religious items including prayer mats and copies of the Quran to the authorities, and an updated set of guidelines to detain Muslim Uyghurs on charges of religious “extremism” that include their postures while at prayer, the color of their hair, and even how they wear their watches.

The proposed flag measure and the GPS pilot program also appear in line with an anti-religion propaganda drive launched earlier this year in Kashgar through police stations and the establishment of “burial management centers” in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture as part of what the Uyghur exile community say is a bid to control all aspects of life for members of their ethnic group—even the act of dying.

Camp network

Last week, an editorial in the Global Times, dismissed international coverage of the re-education camps in the XUAR, which it labeled “training institutes,” saying western media outlets were incorrectly labeling them as “detention” sites and “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”

Aside from the brief mention in the article, China’s central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret. But local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.

Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said recently that as many as 500,000 to a million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, calling it ”the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, said the number “could be closer to 1.1 million, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.”

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