Two separate petitions are currently being circulated that call for the release of a group of independent reporters that were arrested in China while they were working undercover to expose the scale of a massive state-sponsored campaign aimed at stamping out religious freedom in the country.
The move comes after the Chinese secret police detained 45 reporters who were working for online magazine Bitter Winter.
The group of journalists were arrested after they began looking into the Chinese Communist Party’s policies towards religious practices.
One petition is signed by the European Inter-Religious Forum for Religious Freedom states, “We are a truly multi-faith group, representing a high degree of diversity. While there is very little we agree on theologically, or politically, we all agree on the importance of religious freedom for all faiths and none. It strengthens cultures and provides the foundation for stable democracies and their components, including civil society, economic growth, and social harmony. As such, it is also the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon, pre-emptively undermining religious extremism.”
The text later went on to say, “There is one enemy that totalitarian regimes fear more than any else – a free press. They know they should use all means to prevent their wrongdoings from being exposed internationally by free media. For these reasons the signers call on democratic governmental authorities, international organisations, and the media to ask China to immediately release the arbitrarily detained Bitter Winter reporters, and to comply with the international obligations on human rights and freedom of the media.”
Bitter Winter has, in the past, focused most of its attention on highlighting religious liberties and human rights in China. It was launched in May 2018 and is published daily in eight languages by the Torino-based Center for Studies on New Religions
The magazine is known for publishing news, documents, and testimonies about the persecution of all religions in China and has a network of several hundred correspondents in the Chinese provinces.
The Bitter Winter reporters that were detained and interrogated were charged with “divulging state secrets” and “infiltration by foreign forces” due to the content and subject of the reports that they filed. Some of the journalists were sent to what have been called legal education centres to undergo mandatory Communist Party indoctrination.
A reporter who filmed one re-education camp in Xinjiang, where 1 million Uighurs, the native Muslim Turkic-speaking population of Xinjiang, are taken for Party indoctrination merely because they are practicing believers of the Islamic faith and belong to an ethnic minority that is not Han Chinese, was among those arrested.
Four of the 45 detainees from Bitter Winter were classified as “first-level” suspects for whom family visits are forbidden. They are regarded as particularly dangerous because they sent out materials about Catholic priests critical of the Vatican-China Deal of 2018.
Marco Respinti, director in charge of Bitter Winter, told New Europe: “Luckily, 23 of those arrested have been subsequently released after different periods of detention, but all are now kept under strict surveillance, and this paralyses their work for Bitter Winter. Twenty-two are still detained, and we know nothing of their fate, not even where they are.”
The petition denouncing the Chinese government’s actions has been sent to Dr Ahmed Shaheed, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion; Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe; Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human Rights and Jan Figel, Europe’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as to David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
A second petition has been sent by other NGOs to the president of People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, calling for the Chinese government to “respect religious freedoms in China.”
Both the petitions have, thus far, gone unanswered.