High-Ranking US Government Officials Join the Freak Show
The first “plenary session” at the IRF Summit — conference jargon for an event everybody is intended to attend — featured opening remarks by Sam Brownback where he appeared to make a veiled threat against countries that don’t comply with Washington’s definition of religious freedom.
“If we don’t have religious freedom for all around the world we will have the clash of civilizations, full of death and carnage and you can see it setting up now,” Brownback said.
Sandwiched between events during the plenary sessions were advertisements for organizations like Barnabas Aid and Billy Graham’s Evangelical Association, as well as brief remarks by Pam Pryor, a former Trump State Department official listed as a “senior advisor” of the IRF Summit. Pryor would implore attendees to text messages to a phone number; messages such as “Firewall” to “break through the Chinese firewall [and] create a ‘religious freedom’ fair trade certification.”
After Brownback’s opening remarks, the plenary session’s overarching topic was “Big Surveillance and the Rise of Technology Persecution,” which was unsurprisingly focused on China, making little mention of any other country, even obvious offenders like Israel.
This portion of the plenary session began with a “survivor testimony” from Uyghur woman Tursunay Ziyawudun, whom Serikzhan Bilash of Atajurt Eriktileri had claimed to have rescued.
“The Chinese government is seeking to destroy our culture, language and religion. Since 2016 officials have implemented a brutal campaign of assimilation by force, with massive concentration camps holding one-to-three million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. State organized forced labor, torture, rape, forced sterilization, forced abortion and an unknown number of deaths,” Tursunay Ziyawudun said in a flashy animated video introduction to her testimony.
She would go on to allege that three Han Chinese guards raped her and that she watched other Uyghur woman “bleed to death with my own eyes.”
Oddly, she didn’t credit Atajurt Eriktileri or China Aid with rescuing her, but instead the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the US government, suggesting operational overlap between these organizations.
Nancy Pelosi in the Nut House
Following her testimony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a remote address to the summit.
“This important event offers an opportunity to demonstrate our ironclad commitment to defending religious freedom, which has always transcended party and politics. Indeed there is no greater affirmation of the strong bipartisan unity on this subject than this summit’s honorary leadership: Senators Chris Coons and James Lankford, Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Chris Smith, and Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein,” Pelosi said. “And I salute the co-chairs for making this event possible: Ambassador Sam Brownback and President Katrina Lantos Swett.”
“As we just heard from Tursunay Ziyawudun, the Uyghur community faces an existential threat from Beijing which is a challenge to our conscience,” Pelosi said. “We have and will continue to speak out because as I always say, if we do not speak out against human rights violations in China, indeed anywhere, because of commercial interest, then we lose all moral authority to speak out on human rights violations anywhere. So this week let us renew our vow to continue the fight to secure international religious freedom, as your conference theme so eloquently articulates.”
“Best wishes for a successful and productive summit, thank you,” Pelosi concluded.
Pelosi’s remarks were followed by a panel moderated by Daniel Nadel, Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom. Panelists included Olivia Enos of the Heritage Foundation, Representative Henry Cuellar and Nury Turkel, whom Pelosi said in her remarks she was “proud” to appoint to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Turkel, co-founded the Uyghur American Association and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, and is a “founding member” of the World Uyghur Congress, all of which have been funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. Turkel has previously impugned The Grayzone in comments to an outlet funded by the National Endowment for Democracy though he failed to challenge any of its reporting.
“It’s almost like these guys are providing talking points to the Chinese propaganda machine,” he said.
During the panel, Enos slammed China for its response to the coronavirus pandemic before moving on to the Uyghur issue. “We have seen how between 1.8 and 3 million Uyghurs have been placed inside political re-education camps in China, and this was made possible and in fact expedited by China’s draconian use of surveillance technology,” she said.
Other countries targeted by Enos included US officials enemies such as Russia, North Korea, and Burma, which is under heavy financial sanctions by the US government.
“These types of policies demonstrate the importance of US government efforts to promote information access in these contexts,” she said before listing options for the US government to take action, such as the promotion of information access, “support [for] people-led movements,” and Global Magnitsky sanctions.
Nury Turkel opened his remarks thanking the IRF Summit for inviting him to speak, adding that it was “truly an honor to be here with you.”
“Most of you are aware by now, should be aware, of the ongoing genocide in the Uyghur region where the Chinese Communist Party placed the millions of Uyghurs, Khazaks and other Turkic Muslims in industrial scale concentration camps. This represents the largest mass incarceration of an ethno-religious minority group since World War II,” Turkel said.
“The CCP aims to eliminate the distinct Uyghur ethno-religious identity from the face of the earth. The Chinese regime’s digital authoritarianism is an integral part of its brutal oppression of the Uyghurs through the pervasive use of advanced surveillance technology, and myriad of digital tools,” he added.
“Since early 2017, the CCP has carried out some of the worst forms of human rights abuses against the Uyghur people, brutalities that the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo determined as a genocide and crimes against humanity, and that Secretary Anthony Blinken also endorsed and formalized,” he said. “A growing number of parliaments in the free world have also taken the same stance as that of the United States, cementing this issue as one of the global concerns.”
“Today, Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims live in a world where Chinese officials, assisted by sophisticated technology, impose an iron grip over every aspect of life. Video cameras equipped with facial recognition software are omnipresent in cities and villages. Uyghurs must have the ID card scanned at ubiquitous checkpoints to gain access to parks, banks, malls and stores,” Turkel claimed. “Any police officer can scan a QR code posted outside a Uyghur home to learn who lives there and how ‘trustworthy’ they are.”
Turkel went on at length about China’s alleged abuses of Uyghurs through surveillance and biometric technology. “I hate to say this, we might be a little late. Some countries [are] mixing this up with geopolitical issues; this is real,” he later said.
Congressman Cruellar, co-chair of bipartisan House Caucus on International Religious Freedom and honorary co-chair of the IRF Summit, began saying “I want to talk about the same subject, technology and persecution in China.”
“China broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to persecute groups — the groups that were mentioned a few minutes ago,” he said.
“The State Department,” Cuellar said, “recently cited a report that in some instances last year, the CPP used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase surveillance and arrest religious practitioners including members of the state sanctioned groups and to curtail private worship among religious groups.”
Cuellar noted that he put his name on a bipartisan letter “asking President Biden to appoint an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and we certainly know the work that Senator Brownback did in that position.”
Following the panel, Representative Chris Smith gave a speech, opening by thanking Sam Brownback and calling him “an extraordinary leader in the cause of human rights in general and religious freedom in particular.” Two weeks prior to the conference, Smith successfully introduced an amendment to the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement (EAGLE) Act to establish a “US Special Envoy responding to genocide in Xinjiang.”
“Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have exponentially increased persecution against religious believers, including Christians. I want to do a shout out to Bob Fu, for the great work that he has done,” Smith said, tacking on persecution of Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners to the list of allegedly abused minorities in China.
“Religious believers of every persuasion are harassed, arrested, jailed, and tortured; only the compliant are left relatively unscathed. Shockingly, as it prepares to host 2022 Winter Olympic Games, China’s leader Xi Jinping is committing genocide against the Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang,” Rep. Smith added.
“Now Xi Jinping, apparently fearing the power of independent religious belief as a challenge to the Communist Party’s dominance, is trying to destroy or radically transform religion into the party’s slave, employing a draconian policy known as Sinicization,” he said.
“I chaired a congressional hearing on the Beijing genocide Olympics on may 18th and argued it’s either time to move to another city or country or boycott,” Smith boasted. “Yesterday I chaired another congressional hearing in the Lantos Human Rights Commission, and one witness Gulzira Auyelkhan, a Khazak Muslim woman who spent over a year in a concentration camp gave compelling testimony, eyewitness testimony on the use of the Tiger chairs, horrific instruments of torture against Uyghur and Khazak detainees.”
“She also spoke, and she broke down in tears, about the systematic rape of Uyghur women by Chinese authorities,” he added, calling for the “punishing” of the Chinese government for “the crime of genocide.”
Later, former Congressman Frank Wolf, who is credited with the passing of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which created the State Department position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, gave a speech.
Wolf said that he had witnessed first-hand the effects of genocide, noting that he and Sam Brownback were the first members of Congress to travel to Darfur. “I saw it in Bosnia. I saw a Serb-run detention facility for Bosnian Muslims. Congressman Chris Smith, one of the greatest members I ever served with, we went to Vucovar together and weeks later it fell, and everyone that Chris and I went with had been murdered.”
“I saw it in China in my visit to Tibet where Buddhist monks and nuns had been setting themselves on fire to protest the culture genocide by China. In China, the government detains, harasses and imprisons Catholic bishops and Protestant house church leaders,” Wolf said. “The Falun Gong face severe persecution, and there are continuous reports of organ harvesting. Most staggering is the campaign being waged against the Uyghur Muslim population.”
Convicted Sex Abuser Unfortunately Unable to Attend
From here, the plenary session was sponsored by Barnabas Aid. John Marsh, a member of the organization, took to the podium on behalf of convicted sex abuser Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo “who is not able to attend today because of the Covid travel restrictions.” Less than an hour after Pelosi’s speech, March introduced former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the next speaker.
Pompeo opened by thanking Sam Brownback and “everyone for being here” at this “god-driven gathering.”
“I’m now an unemployed former diplomat. But I still know promoting and safeguarding religious freedom abroad was truly a cornerstone of the work that our administration did in foreign policy and it must always be the central element of what we do. In our efforts to fight against authoritarianism around the globe, you see the demand for religious freedom in places like Cuba as we sit here today,” Pompeo said.
“Perhaps the worst contemporary example that you’ve heard much about today is the oppression and killing of Uyghurs in China by the Chinese Communist Party. The State Department built an entire apparatus to get to a place where we can declare the Chinese Communists Party is in fact doing to the Uyghurs what we know to be genocide,” Pompeo said, adding that he hopes “that the present administration will … take action to stop what rivals happened in Germany in the 1930s.”
“There is no right more fundamental to a society than the free practice of religion. We know this, we know that when governments want to oppress, this is where they begin. Behind the walls of prisons and persecuted before our very eyes in places like China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, are tens of thousands of people whose only crime was that they wanted to worship their God in their own way,” he said.
Arguing that recovering from genocide is “tough,” Pompeo said the “greatest model of such recovery is found with the Jewish people in the State of Israel.”
Samantha Power Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
A little more than a half hour following Pompeo’s speech, Adam Phillips, Director for the Center of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), took to the podium. USAID, like the National Endowment for Democracy, is a cutout of the CIA. It has trained police agencies of far-right governments in torture tactics, using homeless people as guinea pigs and recently admitted that its February, 2019 effort to send humanitarian aid to Venezuela was actually an operation intended to help overthrow the elected socialist government of Nicholas Maduro and hand power to the US-government backed opposition leader Juan Guaido.
“I’d like to begin by thanking Ambassador Brownback and his team for organizing this event around such a critical topic for development and for inviting the administration and USAID to participate,” he said, then welcoming USAID Administrator Samantha Power to speak.
During Power’s time serving in various roles in the Obama administration, she was a staunch advocate of humanitarian intervention and a key cheerleader of the US-sponsored destruction of Libya as well as the US proxy war on Syria and the US-backed, Saudi-led genocide of Yemen.
During a trip in Africa traveling in a “heavily armored 14-car convoy [that] was barreling up the road,” Samantha Power and her team “didn’t slow down when we approached the village of Mokong,” and struck and killed a 6-year-old boy.
“Then we were gone,” wrote one journalist traveling with the convoy. “While an ambulance in the convoy stopped to offer aid (there was nothing that could be done) and the S.U.V. that hit Toussaint briefly pulled over before being ordered back on the road, the motorcade did not stop.”
Power began her speech like many others, thanking Ambassador Sam Brownback for “convening this multi-faith coalition to discuss an issue that defines the lives of people worldwide: religious freedom.”
“Heinous abuses of religious freedom and broader human rights are reflected in the horrific account of repression, violence, and genocide that we heard earlier today from Tursunay Ziyawudun—but also in the account of another survivor of the People’s Republic of China’s brutal repression: Zamrut Dawut,” Power said. “Like Tursunay, Zamrut is a Uyghur woman from Xinjiang. In 2018, she was told to report to a local police station before being interrogated, shackled with a black hood over her head, and led to a detention camp where she was forced to change into prison clothes in front of male guards.” Power then reiterated Zamrut’s comments to the Washington Post that China seeks “the extinction of the Uyghurs.”
Power noted that she “met with Tursunay and other Uyghur activists in my first week as USAID Administrator, to hear directly from them about their experiences at the hands of the PRC.”
Throughout her speech, Power railed against the persecution of “Rohingya Muslims in Burma, or Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” as well as “violent attacks against Jewish people.”
“We will keep standing for religious freedom around the world. We will remain humble and grateful for the freedoms we cherish here at home, and pray that through God’s grace and wisdom, we have the capacity to affirm dignity and to secure freedom for more people around the world,” Power vowed, concluding “It’s been an honor to be with you and I thank you for all you’re doing. Now let’s work together on this vital cause.”
IRF Summit Gets Biden Regime Approval
At the plenary session the following day, the highest-level US government official to be featured at the conference spoke: Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who said he was “delighted to join the inaugural International Religious Freedom summit, to reiterate the Biden administration’s commitment to promote and defend religious freedom around the world, for everyone.”
“The United States is committed to defending and advancing human rights and religious freedom is a vital component of our diplomacy. Every day, our team and the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department in Washington, along with American diplomats around the world work with local religious communities and civil society advocates to track threats to religious freedom, coordinate responses and lift up solutions,” Blinken said.
He vowed that he would be “appointing an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom in the coming weeks,” and that the State Department would “continue to work closely with civil society organizations, including many of you, to combat all forms of religious motivated hatred, violence and discrimination around the world.”
Roasted Chicken Breast With a Side of Regime Change
On the third day of the Summit, I made my way through a set of metal detectors to the Regency Ballroom for a luncheon hosted and sponsored by the Family Research Council entitled “Sanctioned by China: Hearing from high-level US government officials and Chinese victims of religious persecution.”
I took a seat at a mostly empty round table albeit two young men dressed sharply in suits sitting a few seats adjacent to me. Listening in to their conversation, I gathered that both of them work for organizations that focus on China. One of the organizations one of the men worked for is banned in China and so the two were discussing how they could collaborate. I still do not know which organizations these men work for.
“The anti-imperialist left thinks we are a CIA front,” one of them said to another. I was trying my best to hear more but I was interrupted by a young woman who asked if she could sit next to me. She was very eager to strike up a conversation and asked me about my religion, I believe in an effort to convert me.
She told me that she is a journalist for the magazine of televangelist Billy Graham’s Evangelical Association, which I have confirmed. Over a plate of flavorless roasted chicken breast, asparagus, bell peppers and potatoes, she would go on to blurt out, unprompted that the Billy Graham Evangelical Association operates covert, illegal missionary work in China despite being banned from the country.
Graham, now-deceased, is one of the most influential evangelists ever and maintained close friendships with multiple US presidents. Following a prayer breakfast with Richard Nixon, Graham told the president that Jews maintain a “stranglehold” over American society that “has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
“If you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something,” Graham told him before blaming Jews for the spread of pornography and agreeing with Nixon that “The best Jews are actually the Israeli Jews.”
In 1993, Billy Graham floated at a rally that AIDS might be a punishment from God to the gay community. He would spend much of the following decade crusading against gay marriage.
Before there was much more time for chatter, the Sanctioned by China program began, with Anthony Perkins of the Family Research Council introducing the first speaker, Senator Josh Hawley.
Just over a year before Senator Josh Hawley came under fire for egging on a supposed six-hour insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th, he and Senator Ted Cruz partook in a yearlong, full-fledged insurrection in China funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which featured actions more typical of insurrections such as widespread vigilant violence, property destruction, road blockades, occupations, serious vandalism of the local legislature building, vehicular attacks on police officers and knife attacks against enemy politicians.
Mere days following the IRF Summit, Hawley and Cruz teamed up yet again, filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, urging them to overrule their previous decision in Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion in the United States.
Throughout the insurrection in Hong Kong, Hawley released several video clips promoting the riots which were then promoted by self-proclaimed “pro-democracy” media like Hong Kong Free Press. He also co-sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which passed through congress nearly unanimously and was aimed at sanctioning the Chinese government. Hawley also introduced other bills attacking China over Hong Kong like the Hong Kong Be Water Act (a name borrowed from the slogan of rioters).
Hawley was scheduled to speak at the conference but due to a conflict with the a vote in the Senate, addressed the lunch crowd via video. Nonetheless, both he and Pelosi speaking at the same conference contradicts much of the narrative that has come out of Washington since Hawley was photographed triumphantly raising his fist before a crowd of protesters as they entered the US Capitol building on January 6.
Hawley has attacked Nancy Pelosi for using the events on January 6 to pull off a “power grab.” Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi appointed Rep. Bennie Thompson as chairman on the select committee charged with investigating what happened. Thompson had previously stated that if Hawley and Ted Cruz were found to be “in some way liable,” they should be put on the US no-fly list. Ironically, such a move would prevent Hawley from engaging with foreign insurrectionists that are also supported by Nancy Pelosi.
For their actions in Hong Kong, China sanctioned Sen. Hawley, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Sen. Cruz, all of whom traveled to the city and met with riot leaders. Perkins began by asking Hawley about his response to the sanctions.
“I have to say that it’s kind of a badge of honor for me Tony,” he replied. “I was out on the streets with the protesters, I met with protest leaders.”
“I recall reading your dispatches from Hong Kong, as you were writing about, speaking about your time there in the midst of the protesters. I mean, there is certainly, as we watched, internationally, that spirit of freedom there in Hong Kong,” Perkins responded.
Hawley then called Beijing “authoritarians” that want “total control.”
“They know that religious believers will be opposed to authoritarianism. They know that religious believers inherently understand the dignity of every human person, and the right of every human person to follow their conscience, to follow God, as they’re called to. And so this is why they’re particularly, particularly opposed to religious liberty of any kind,” Hawley said, citing “the Uyghurs, the Tibetans” as an example.
“There’s only one nation in the world that effectively stands between the Chinese government and their imperial ambitions. And that’s us, that’s the United States,” Hawley said.
“We have to be enthusiastic advocates of the Christians in China, of the Tibetans and Uyghurs in China to say that the torture and oppression that the Chinese government is carrying out against its own citizens is wrong,” Hawley said, adding that “the United States has got to lead an international effort” against it.
Perkins then conducted an in-person interview with Grace Gao, daughter of Chinese Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng, convicted of writing “seditious articles” in 2006. Chinese media reported at the time that “the court ruled that the articles defamed China’s central government and amounted to agitation aimed at toppling it.” Grace’s tearful testimony alleged torture against her father.
Following the interview with Grace Gao, Perkins led a prayer asking God to see Gao Zhisheng released from prison.
Perkins then introduced the next member of what he called the “sanctioned caucus,” Senator Tom Cotton, a leading China hawk in Congress who has repeatedly pushed the discredited theory that the coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China and has called for “economic war” against the country.
Cotton was first asked by Perkins what his response to being banned from China was, and Cotton quipped that he was upset that he and his wife would not be able to honeymoon in Wuhan.
Cotton echoed Hawley that “religious believers” are uniquely equipped to combat authoritarianism arguing that the Chinese government is trampling on the religious freedoms of Chinese Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims “because they know that religion has always played an indispensable role in the destabilizing and even toppling totalitarian regimes, especially communist regimes.” He went on to claim that China has arrested 10,000 Christian “church-goers” in the past three years.
Cotton may have given away the game, however, when he noted that Uyghurs are “a relatively small minority in northwestern China, but Xi Jinping and Beijing’s leaders view that as a central territory for their Belt and Road initiatives so they can run rail and highways and pipelines in the western provinces of China and not have to worry about the US Navy to the east of China.”
The US government has had an interest in Xinjiang since before there was a CIA or a Peoples Republic of China, with members of the Strategic Services Unit (the predecessor of the CIA) stationed there to spy on the Soviet Union. The first CIA officer killed in the line of duty was fleeing his post in Xinjiang when slain by Tibetan guards who mistook him for a Khazak. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has renewed US interest in the region.
The final speaker at the lunch was IRF co-chair Sam Brownback, who was sanctioned by China while he served as Trump’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Perkins introduced Brownback by noting a conversation they had wherein the ambassador recalled to him how he was personally called by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to inform him he had been sanctioned.
“They sanctioned Pompeo too,” Brownback noted. “Here’s a guy who’s a Sunday School teacher and a tank driver.” Brownback said that he thought that if President Trump had told Pompeo the US would invade China, Pompeo would tell Trump “let me in the first wave to go in, if we’re gonna do it that way.”
Brownback said that he fears China will digitize its currency and people would need “government approval to buy or sell” things. He went on to “praise God [that] Trump went after” the Chinese government.
“Now, the rest of the world is starting to come on board and say, yeah, we can’t have China run the world in this autocratic, mercantilist authoritarian style,” Brownback said. He went on to portray the Chinese government as an empire in decline that’s “losing control.”
“Either the world will change China or China will change the world. It’s going to be one way or the other,” Brownback concluded.
In the course of three days, I heard from scores of political elites representing both sides of the political divide. By now it was clear that there is not a single issue with more bipartisan support than the anti-China crusade, and when there is unity in Washington, there is going to be trouble elsewhere in the world.
As Johnnie Moore, former Commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said during the panel hosted by the Falun Gong cult, “Donald Trump and Joe Biden don’t agree on very many things. Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy and Chuck Schumer don’t agree on very many things. By the day, they are agreeing more on on standing up to to this.”
Pelosi had made similar remarks: “there is no greater affirmation of the strong bipartisan unity on this subject than this summit’s honorary leadership.”
And Scott Flipse, Director of Policy for the Bipartisan Congressional Executive Commission on China, had said pretty much the same: “This is one of the few things in Congress that Democrats and Republicans are united on, that China, the Communist Party of China … are a strategic competitor and that horrific human rights abuses need to be addressed.”
As we progress, or rather regress, further into Great Power Competition with China, I expect the issue of religious freedom in China to become an even more popular weapon in Washington used to batter China into becoming a country which looks more like a so-called Western Democracy.
After all, this was only the “inaugural International Religious Freedom Summit,” and I suspect that a conference which was able to secure the Secretary of State will not give up after its first year. It may even be the case that it cleans up its image and kicks sponsors like the Church of Scientology to the curb.
In the weeks after the IRF Summit, I received an email from an organizer soliciting RSVPs for a follow-up, off-the-record Zoom conference on Global Campaigns to Advance Religious Freedom. No sources could be explicitly or implicitly identified. “NO video or audio taping is allowed,” the email said.
Something tells me this is only the beginning.
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