After being criticized for his silence on human rights violations, specifically relating to the Uighur Muslim population in China, Pope Francis has finally acknowledged them in his new book, Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future. The 150-page book, available publicly this month, explains the Pope’s views on how to “make the world safer, fairer, and healthier for all people now,” according to Google Books. He is writing the book with his biographer Austen Ivereigh. The book addresses Covid-19 and how governments can alleviate issues within their countries through economic, social, and political means once the pandemic is over, according to The Guardian. It suggests a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and reprimands tax breaks for the wealthy. He expresses his support for Black Lives Matter protestors in the United States and most notably addresses persecuted groups, saying “I think often of persecuted peoples, the Rohingya, the poor Uighurs, the Yazidi – what ISIS did to them was truly cruel – or Christians in Egypt and Pakistan killed by bombs that went off when they prayed in church,” according to The New York Times.
Human rights activists have been pushing Pope Francis to speak out about the Uighur population for years, says NBC News. Up to two million Chinese Uighurs are being held in huge detention centers in Xinjiang, where they face “indoctrination, physical abuse, and sterilization,” according to CNN. The intention is to better assimilate them to Chinese culture and crackdown on extremism. A BBC video with footage from inside the camps shows detainees singing, dancing, and being allowed limited freedoms to occasionally leave the compound, but suggests that journalists were not shown the true reality of the camps. About 75 faith-based leaders from around the world have issued a statement saying the plight of Chinese Uighurs is “one of the most egregious human tragedies since the Holocaust,” says The Tablet. The Pope’s reluctance to criticize China has been attributed to a 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China that was renewed in October. The agreement is that China will recognize the pope’s authority in the Chinese Catholic Church and allow him to have a final say on the appointment of bishops, according to The New York Times. In return, the Vatican will recognize bishops already appointed by the Chinese government. Relations between the Vatican and China have been strained since the rise of the Communist Party in the early 1950s, according to CNN. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has harshly criticized the renewal of the deal publicly.
Inevitably, China has responded negatively to Pope Francis’ comments. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the Pope’s statement in support of Chinese Uighurs has “no factual basis at all,” according to The Guardian. He added, “there are 56 ethnic groups in China, and the Uighur ethnic group is an equal member of the big family of the Chinese nation. The Chinese government has always treated (all) the minority groups equally and protected their legitimate rights and interests,” says CNN.
As the highest religious figure in the country, Pope Francis is right to speak out about injustices around the world and advocate for better social responsibility. His recent endorsement of same-sex civil unions has huge weight, the same weight that can be used to pressure the Chinese government to re-examine the detention centers, and the international community to also put pressure on China. The renewal of the 2018 deal between the Vatican and China is controversial because it still shows some support of China from the Pope. Pope Francis should be open to reneging his support of the deal if the camps continue or conditions get worse. He also can do more to continually speak out against the Uighurs, not just through the one line in his book.
China has a history of human rights abuses through curbing religious freedoms. The government officially recognizes five religions, with secular officials in control. People with other religious affiliations face possible imprisonment and destruction of religious sites. John Allen, the editor of Crux, a Catholic newspaper, told Voice of America, “Francis is facing growing pressure to speak out on China’s varied human rights abuses, including its constrictions of religious freedoms.” The Vatican has also been criticized for not being vocal about the Chinese government crackdown in Hong Kong.
Pope Francis is making moves towards using his power to influence social good through his book. Speaking out about the detention of Uighur Muslims in China is relevant and timely. However, given his influence, he needs to speak out more, and over an extended period of time, to ensure that the world pays attention to China’s human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims.