Uyghurs, the Church, and Religious Freedom

Uyghur girls. Xinjiang. Photo by kpi. CC BY 2.0

About a week ago, Disney released its live-action Mulan for rent on Disney+. As people watched it, they noticed something: in the closing credits, Disney gives “special thanks” to eight government entities in Xinjiang, where parts of the movie were filmed.

This has led to calls to boycott the movie in the U.S.[fn1]

Why? It’s a long(ish) story, told better by others, but the short version: Xinjiang (in western China) is home to about 12 million indigenous Muslims. The largest of these groups are the Uyghurs.[fn2] Since at least 2017, the Chinese government has been aggressively detaining its Uyghur population in concentration camps (which it calls “re-education camps”). Today, an estimated 1 million Uyghurs (which represents more than 8% of the Muslim population in the region) are detained in these concentration camps. Moreover, Buzzfeed has determined that China has recently built 268 new compounds in which to detain its Uyghur population.

I’ll note here that there is long-running tension between the Chinese government and the Uyghur population. The government claims its crackdown is the result of terrorist actions by (some of) the Uyghur population.

True or not, its response has been a full-on suppression of Islam in the area. The government has limited the number of mosques and exercises strict control over religious schools. In 2014, some Xinjiang government departments banned Muslim government employees from fasting during Ramadan.

There are also reports that, as part of its crackdown on Islam, the Chinese government has forced Muslims in the Xinjiang province to eat pork and drink alcohol during the Lunar New Year, on threat of detention in its concentration camps if they don’t. (There are similar reports of forced alcohol and pork consumption in the concentration camps.[fn3]) The Chinese Communist Party has been working to “Sinicize religion, or shape all religions to conform to the officially atheist party’s doctrines and the majority Han-Chinese society’s customs.” (While there doesn’t appear to be the same level of repression of Christians, President Xi Jinping is attempting to curtail church growth in China and “bend Christian belief to party dictates.“)

The U.S. State Department has released a statement calling on the Chinese government to end its “repressive controls on the cultural and religious practices and identities of members of religious and ethnic minority groups.” Over 75 faith leaders have signed a statement calling on China to stop its crimes against the Uyghur popultation.

Notably absent from these condemnations? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This seems odd. The Church puts tremendous emphasis on religious liberty. We have a manual about religious freedom. President Oaks has asserted that “religious freedom is vital to God’s plan of salvation and … is so valuable to society at large that all citizens should support it.” The BYU School of Law (which is separate from the Church, of course, but reflects its values) hosts an annual International Law and Religion Symposium; this year’s topic is “Religious Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities.”

It is true that the Muslim population in Xinjiang is not our community; members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not being interned in concentration camps. But that it isn’t us isn’t relevant to our duties and responsibilities. In fact, the Church prominently declares that

Latter-day Saints believe in defending the religious freedom of others just as readily as their own. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves” (History of the Church, 498–99 [discourse given by Joseph Smith on July 9, 1843, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Willard Richards]).

Would publicly condemning China’s oppression of its Uyghur population have consequences to the Church? Probably. The Church has plans for a temple in Shanghai (though it’s not clear whether Shanghai has agreed to those plans). I suspect that a vocal condemnation of human rights abuses by the Chinese government would impede whatever plans the Church has in that regard.

But what of it? I grew up singing, “Do what is right; let the consequence follow.” A temple in China would be a blessing for many Chinese members of the Church who can’t access it. But a temple purchased through complicity with human rights abuses and crushing silence on the violation of millions of Uyghurs’ religious liberty? That doesn’t sound like a worthy trade to me.

It’s time for the Church to do what is right. The consequences of not doing so are too dire to live with.

[fn1] Full disclosure: my family and I are participating in the boycott.

[fn2] Traditionally, the English spelling has been “Uighur”; my understanding is that Uyghurs themselves prefer the English spelling “Uyghur,” so that’s what I’ve chosen to use.

[fn3] It’s worth noting here that the United States has similar blood on its hands: there are reports that Muslims detained in immigration facilities have been forced to choose between eating expired and rotten Halal food or pork products. The chaplain at Krome reportedly dismissed detainees’ complaints, saying, “It is what it is.”


  1. Thank you for this. The Southern Baptist Convention backed the statement. We didn’t. Perhaps they weren’t aware of it? Regardless, what a smack in the face. Indeed, let the consequence follow, as they already are.

  2. Great piece.

    I really want to believe that the Church cares about religious freedom. I know that those at the law school do and that a lot of lay LDS folks are doing good work in the space. But it seems to me the only type of religious freedom the Q15 care about is the freedom to discriminate.

    I also realize that there are some areas that seem politically charged and nuanced and complicated and with no real “right” answer that the Church doesn’t want to wade into. Based on your description, though, this seems like a no-brainer if you care about human rights and religious freedom. What is happening to these people is wrong, full stop.

    Unfortunately this is another example of the Church focusing on protecting itself as an institution at the expense of its actual professed values / integrity / the welfare of human beings. I try not to be upset every time this happens – after all, that’s what institutions do – but I tend to agree that we should practice what we preach at the highest institutional levels: do what is right, let the consequence follow.

  3. I wonder if the statement of faith leaders calling on China to stop its crimes against the Uyghur population was presented to our Church for possible signature and, if so, to whom specifically. It wouldn’t be surprising, if it were, if the analysis were that adding a signature from such a small minority Church would not make the statement any more effective, but would likely impede efforts toward a temple in China to serve members there and those for whom they would do temple work. I’m not sure how “do what is right, let the consequence follow” applies when choosing between two right actions, one of which will impede if not prevent the other.
    The anonymous text of that hymn, published in Boston in 1857, appears to be a part of New England abolitionist fervor of the time. Its principles may be timeless (except possibly “angels above us are silent notes taking”), but possibly of limited use in making choices between two inconsistent right actions.
    I’m glad I am not charged with that analysis in this case, though if I had been I suspect I would have chosen Sam’s proposed action (and then been overruled by others). I wonder.

  4. Wondering, I have no idea what the listserv for major religious leaders looks like or whether our church leaders were presented with the opportunity to sign. I’ll note, though, that we’re really good at signing amicus briefs and we have our own channels of communication, whether or not we’re invited to sign a particular statement.

    Also, you’re probably right that a reprimand from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wouldn’t have a practical needle-moving effect (though honestly, in the U.S., we punch above our weight politically and it’s clearly within the realm of possibility that we could convince the U.S. government to sanction the CCP for its religious and human rights abuses). But I’m not convinced that looking at a successful result is the proper measure for a religious organization; we do a lot of impractical things because we claim a religious obligation to do them. If we didn’t focus our rhetoric so extensively on religious liberty I’d say we should still have spoken out, but we’d have less of an imperative. But where our rhetoric claims that religious liberty is foundational to the plan of salvation, I think we have an obligation to highlight and speak out against gross impositions on those rights, whether or not they will be the causal move in creating change.

    And from a practical perspective, history (and, in many cases, the present) tends to look poorly on accommodationist moves. Even if it seems like it’s within the Church’s short-term interest, in the long-term I suspect that not speaking out will be a weight around the Church’s neck.

  5. Realpolitik (i.e., it is far away from Salt Lake City and there are relatively few Latter-day Saints living there, is ever so massive in population and has extremely powerful & authoritarian leadership).

  6. Yes, Sam, those are the reasons I believe I would make the same choice you would were I presented with the decision. However, I’m not convinced that doing what’s “right, let the consequence follow” is the problem that presents itself to all others. Rather, the problem for some is determining what’s right, particularly when they believe in the necessity and urgency of temple work as much as (or possibly more than) they truly believe in religious freedom.

  7. I hear you, Wondering. I think favoring a temple over people’s human and religious rights (assuming that’s the calculus the church is making, and I don’t have any reason to believe it is) would be absolutely immoral and wrong. But from a practical perspective, appeasement to get a temple is also a tremendously risky move, because you may end up appeasing gross human rights violations AND not get the temple (which apparently hasn’t actually been approved and, as Disney is learning with Mulan, isn’t guaranteed in any event).

  8. Meanwhile, other than a statement by the church when candidate Trump initially called for a Muslim ban, to my knowledge the church has been silent on Trump’s actual bans, which intentionally significantly limit the number of Muslims allowed into U.S. by restricting visas and green cards from specific Muslim-majority countries. Trump may have not have realized his dream of a total ban, but a pretty significant ban is still in place, and the target of that ban is still as clear as it was when candidate Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the U.S. It’s still harming families that should be together, and it’s still an attack on religious freedom.

  9. D Christian Harrison says:

    It’s hard to take our claim that we are the KINGDOM OF GOD if we always play the part of a cowering “small minority church”. Covering our asses seems to be our default—which means we don’t take seriously the idea that “they who are with us are greater than they who are with them”.

  10. keepapitchinin says:

    I wonder — I’m making no particular guesses at all — how or whether Pres. Nelson’s personal ties with the Chinese factored/factors into choices like this. Entirely apart from that, we’re not particularly good at signing on to broad faith-based coalitions, despite our claims to interfaith cooperation, when we’re not the/one of the organizers of such coalitions.

  11. I would have liked to see my church on that list.

    But. Coming from someone who has been waiting impatiently for years for the live-action Mulan, who managed to sell her excitement to her three boys, who are in desperate need of female protagonists they can respect: How does the Disney boycott help the Uyghurs? Is the hope that Disney will lose enough money to be motivated to condemn the Chinese government, so they can then lose more money being forced to close its operations in China, which the Chinese government will later regret, then agree to stop the persecution of the Uyghurs in exchange for a renewal of their (I assume) mutually profitable relationship? Is there something more direct we can do for the Ugyhurs? Maybe donate $30 to UHRP, or spend the time we would have watched the movie on contacting representatives about the issue?

  12. The leaders of the church (including Jesus) seem strongly aware of the implications of religious freedom in contemporary global societies. I’m certain they’re aware of the Uyghurs’ situation. Their not-signing, whether about the temple in Shanghai or not, might not be blatant hypocrisy or stupidity. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that whoever is in charge is playing a different game.

  13. In case I wasn’t clear in the OP, I’m indifferent to whether the Church signed this particular statement. I have no idea if we were even invited to and I’m comfortable with the Church wanting a say in the drafting of things it signs.

    What bothers me is that the Church hasn’t said (as far as I can find) anything about the situation. It has its own voice and many ways to broadcast that voice. And I’d be heartened it it used its voice to condemn the type of evil that it claims to condemn.

  14. I was deeply disturbed when the Church leadership announced it was pursuing the building of a temple in Shanghai. Particularly with the ongoing situation with Uyghurs. But the leaders have other decisions to account for as it relates to China. The P3’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama on his latest visit to SLC. Again bowing to the Communist government. And the Dalai Lama is one of the foremost proponents of peace and religious freedom in the world. The Chinese have done much to destroy the Buddhist culture in Tibet.

    Laurel, you can give your tithing money to a worthy NGO working in central Asia. Nancy, I’m not. If the leaders aren’t bowing to the Chinese, they owe the members an explanation.

  15. The church has long had a very narrow view of participation in protest. The politics of Mormonism are perhaps best seen through the lens of the Reed Smoot controversies. Leadership has been quite willing to take sides (or not) on issues that seem philosophically startling. This is one more in a long line.

  16. I wouldn’t read too much into the Church’s absence from this particular statement (as Sam has pointed out). After all, also absent from this letter are any Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, or Adventist signatories. Most signatories don’t have the authority to sign on behalf of their entire church or denomination (e.g. there is only a single Catholic Bishop).

    But I also wouldn’t read too much into the institutional Church’s silence in this issue. There are many, many specific issues for which the Church does not make official statements. I agree that it would be nice in this case, but I don’t expect it. But there are Church-affiliated groups addressing this, including last October’s ICLRS conference at the BYU law school, which addresses religious persecution, including the specific plight of the Uyghurs. The Church is likely supporting other academic or social groups addressing religious freedom that specifically discuss this particular issue.

  17. Rogerdhansen,

    What evidence do you have that the First Presidency refused to meet with the Dalai Lama? I know they didn’t meet when he was in Utah, but do you know the precise circumstances of that visit?

  18. Dsc, that’s good, and BYU Law does legitimately good work. But (and I say this as an academic) academics—even academics at a Church-owned school—lack the ability to speak institutionally for the Church and its values. I recognize that the Church doesn’t have the capacity to speak to everything, but a religious freedom issue that’s impacting at least 1 million (and likely up to 12 million) people? That seems a pretty compelling place to raise our voice.

  19. Sam: Looking at the list of 75 signatories, I see a total of 9 from the USA, with only one representing a Christian church, the rest being from Islamic institutions. Good for the Southern Baptists for being the one exception. But calling the church “notably absent” in that case is simply obtuse.

    There is a long list of horrible and appalling situations in the world, a few of which the church has spoken out on. “Why hasn’t the church condemned…?” is a cheap game to play, especially since you give no thought at all to the costs involved. You treat the answer as obvious, even as you acknowledge that it would accomplish nothing.

    But the church has Chinese members, living and meeting in China – that’s why we want to build a temple there – a country that throws undesirable religious minorities in concentration camps. Is the church’s condemnation worth whatever price those members have to pay? What looks obvious to you in the U.S. may not be at all clear to them. Are you sure you want the church to put their lives, freedom, or access to the church at risk? Would they agree?

    Right now, there is one not entirely obscure case of an LDS businessman sitting in a Chinese prison on absurdly trumped-up charges. Do you want to explain to his wife and children that ineffectually condemning China is more important than seeing him released?

    I’m all for economic boycotts because they at least have some hope of having an effect and they help create freedom for future action. Personally, I think it’s a mistake to build a temple in China right now for just this reason, but that’s not my call.

    But the problem with authoritarian dictatorships is that the options are all bad. You’d accomplish more by looking for and publicizing outlets for effectual action than by stoking outrage against the church for failing to do something that would accomplish nothing good but might cause much harm.

  20. C. Keen, you give me a lot of credit (and misread me significantly) if you think I’m trying to—or have the ability to—stoke outrage against the Church. And, as I’ve said way too many times before, I’m not suggesting that the Church should have signed this particular statement.

    But I do think we have an obligation to speak to evil. Speaking out against concentration camps and human rights abuses is the right thing to do, especially when it’s positioned as one of our core values. There’s always a reason not to act. I’m making the affirmative case for why the Church should act.

  21. @C Keen fair point. I don’t know enough about how the church operates in China (largely / exclusively non-Chinese people, I think) to understand what, if any, actual risks there are to those people.

    I think the tough thing is that the church trumpets religious freedom as a high value – GA’s speak on it regularly – and yet seems to be ignoring one of the most pressing religious freedom issues occurring today. One starts to wonder if the church’s interest in religious freedom is mostly just for itself—and mostly just when it has to do with anti-gay activities for which the church expends considerable time and resources.

    So fine if the church doesn’t want to wade into this situation but then it should clarify that when it says religious freedom it means for church members who want to discriminate against gay people. If someone can point me to anything the church itself (as opposed to LDS academics) is doing for religious freedom outside of fighting gay rights I’d really love to hear it. As someone noted, I was happy to see the church speak out a bit against the Muslim refugee ban but that was pretty one-and-done with no actual advocacy work.

  22. Aussie Mormon says:

    Change needs to come from getting people to change. That happens through meeting government leaders, and addressing groups that can actually effect that change
    Although it would be good to see the church react to specific situations, it would completely lose meaning if we just ended up with a constant stream of near identical one paragraph statements with just the location changed.

    The church regularly makes reference to religious freedom that aren’t related to gay rights or even just Mormons. It’s just that they are at religious freedom related events or meetings. Here’s an example from last year.

  23. @Aussie Mormon I have seen people like Elder Kearon address other types of religious freedoms. My (genuine) question is what resources (financial and otherwise) does the church provide for religious freedom other than anti-gay rights advocacy? Not trying to be cynical but genuinely not aware of any apart from BYU activities.

  24. It’s an odd thing. Christ didn’t stand up to the Romans but literally submitted and stood silent to their abuses of authority. The church didn’t even stand up to Hitler.

    I don’t like that reality in many ways. I can understand it though.

    I will just add that the church’s hope that a temple can bring light to the world and to a nation isn’t a bad one. There’s historical precedent. The thought could be, let some battle the forces of Satan on one front and we will focus on another. That doesn’t mean they disagree with the public relations front.

    But if you gave me two options to make a difference in an evil super power – public relations or a temple. I’d choose the latter.

  25. Billy Possum says:

    Does anyone know enough about the Church’s official response to Nazism and the Holocaust to enlighten us about that? I suspect (but do not know) that if we explore that historical response, we’ll find it to be of a piece with the Church’s current tack.

    Which would not be surprising. In both situations, the response appears calculated to avoid making large, powerful political institutions into large, powerful enemies. The cost of that response is appalling (effective complicity in evil; horrendous hypocrisy). But would the cost of the alternative have been worse?

  26. Antonio Parr says:

    “Speaking truth to power” is a phrase that often accompanies protests and visible, emotionalLy-charged responses to perceived injustices. But sometimes injustice is best confronted with subtlety and patience and quiet resolve.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day. And not every cancer is combatted with invasive surgery. I would give the Church the benefit of the doubt from time to time. Just because we are not as reactionary as some denominations when it comes to protests and petitions does not mean that we aren’t actively engaged in combatting evil.

  27. it's a series of tubes says:

    Antonio: immediate, outraged, and reactionary virtue-signaling responses are the stock in trade of certain parts of the blogosphere. Unsurprising they’d like to remake the public church in their image.

  28. As someone who spends a lot of time in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, I think the Church is walking a fine line to protect its members in China and Hong Kong. The government has already started to act against the Church. Native member branches in China have been shut down. Members are afraid to return to China. If you look at the recent photos of what the Hong Kong Temple will look like after it’s renovated, you will notice that it will no longer have a Moroni on top. The Asia Area’s offices are located in Hong Kong. Due to the new security law, they and all of their employees and records are at risk. Also due to the new law, if the Church leaders criticize China in certain ways, they could be arrested upon arrival in Hong Kong. Based on what the Church did in then East Germany, I think their policy of holding their tongues to enable a temple to re-open and another one to possibly be built as well as protecting the lives of the members is the most ethical thing to do.

  29. The great enemy of religious freedom is estrangement and alienation,” he said. “When a society or government divides people based on what they believe, how they think, the words they say, whom they worship, or the manner in which they worship, common ground is lost, and life together becomes a battle.”

    This is a paragraph taken from the talk cited by Aussie Mormon.
    It struck me that that describes the modus operandi of pres Trump. Destroying unity, destroying trust in institutions, like media, science, medical experts. Not religion but everything else.

    Today when there are 200,000 unnecessary virus deaths, and he meets experts on the fire conditions, and extreme weather, being attributed to climate change, and his response is; it will get cooler.

  30. My comments reflect a broader frustration w/ the world today, as I feel like truth is increasingly hard to discern.

    I am fairly confident that China has a crackdown on the Uyghurs in the region – and confident that it is oppressive and terrible.

    I also have read of accounts of Uyghur extremists involved in terrorist/anti-state activities. I assume those happen and they are underplayed/overplayed depending on one’s position in the conflict.

    I’m also suspect of fringe voices that compare this to the WMD argument that was inflated as an excuse for war – but acknowledge there could be truth there.

    Bottom line, I struggle to know where truth is and where secret combinations are active. Personally I 100% support any government or business pressure on China, but I could also see an organization like the church feeling a measure of pause on how hard to press considering everything pro & con listed in this discussion.

  31. The last 2 Australia journalist in china each had 7 police turn up at their door at midnight to intimidate them, they then went to the embassy, and are now in Aus. There are other racially chinese, but Australian citizens, in prison in china. We have been advised not to go there because we could be arrested, and used politically.

    Can you imagine chinese secret police being turned away from the front desk because they dont have recommends? I can not imagine how a temple could operate in china? But I would also be concerned for any members in china. I wouldn’t be wasting money building a temple there. Not a safe place. Glad we went there a few years ago, wouldn’t now.

    The whole religious freedom as the right to discriminate, is only possible in right wing Americs. In the rest of the free world, that argument is a joke. Religions have lost credibility, because of such claims, and other abuses.

  32. I would argue that the situation in western China is far more serious than the wedding cake in Colorado. It’s a question of priorities. Are we really a global church, or a Utah church pretending to be a global church.

    Now is the wrong time to be talking about a temple in Shanghai. I haven’t heard any arguments for constructing such an edifice considering the Chinese persecution of religious groups.

    Dsc, when the Church PR department was asked why the P3 or some subset hadn’t met with the Dalai Lama, they answered that P3 had met with him on a previous visit and didn’t feel it was necessary. The Dalai Lama is one of the world’s foremost proponents of peace and religious freedom. Is placating the Chinese government more important than peace and religious freedom? Ironically, when Trump arrived soon after the Dalai Lama’s visit, P3 rolled out the red carpet.

  33. We have many members in China, both local members and expat members, all of whom live in a delicate balance between their desire to practice their religion and the risk of adverse consequences if they and their religion are viewed as part of China’s many problems involving religious groups. In a nation that has had so many bad and ugly experiences historically due to foreign religious elements, it’s amazing that we are given the remarkable freedoms we have long enjoyed in China in spite of not being one of the five officially recognized state religions that are under the control of the Party. It’s taken years of patience and good behavior to achieve that, coupled with some very kind and supportive individuals in the government.

    The Church has done much to keep the law and the often vague regulations in China, to build relationships of trust to enable members to worship quietly and live in peace as sources of strength for China. There are many reasons to be cautious and gentle in any actions taken. I can see both sides of the debate, but believe the wise course for us as members is to pray for increased religious freedom for all there, to pray for ongoing inspiration to our leaders, and to be patient and supportive as they cope with a complex situation that has no simple and easy answers, however tempted we may be to see our own views as supremely intelligent.

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