For the first time ever Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the widespread persecution of Uighur Muslims in China, where more than one million of the minority are believed to be held in mass internment camps.
In his upcoming book, titled “Let Us Dream: The Path To A Better Future,” Francis talked about persecuted religious communities around the world.
“I often think of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uighurs, the Yazidi,” he wrote, also addressing the plight of some Christian communities in Muslim-majority countries. The spiritual leader of the Catholic world previously spoke out about the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq and also expressed support for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Bangladesh, addressing their plights during an official visit to Dhaka back in 2017. But this is the first time Francis has mentioned the suffering of Uighurs living in detention in the northwestern territory of Xinjiang.
The remarks were a departure from Francis’s silence on China’s alleged rights abuses after he became pope in 2013, as the Vatican has sought to normalized its relationship with Beijing after the two sides severed diplomatic ties in 1951.
In a daily breifing on Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the pope’s comments on Uighurs were “totally groundless.”
Beijing has continued to publicly deny the existence of detention camps in Xinjiang targeting the ethnic minority. Even with mounting global criticism of widely documented rights abuses—including allegations of cultural genocide—carried out against the area’s predominantly Muslim population since at least 2017, Chinese officials have defended the internment camps as a “necessary measure against terrorism,” saying that they offer “voluntary education and training,” though leaked documents have revealed them to be more akin to massive prisons.
Chilling first-hand accounts have also emerged, recalling the horrors of widespread government surveillance, ongoing religious crackdowns and forced sterilizations performed on Uighur women to control the Turkic-speaking minority population.
Rights groups welcomed the comments while urging Francis to offer more than a few words. “Speaking up publicly for religious freedom and human rights in China is not just the right thing to do, it is also the practical approach to pressure the Beijing government to change,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
While Wang called it “a welcome first step,” she said that it was not sufficient.
“Pope Francis needs to step up,” Wang told VICE World News. “Instead of just a passing mention in a new book, he should be making more public statements unequivocally condemning the Chinese government’s severe repression in Xinjiang and the persecution of Christians and other religious groups across China. Very little has improved for millions of Catholics and other religious groups in China. Francis should also respond to their call and speak up against Beijing’s repression.”
China is home to about 12 million Catholics, who are split between state-run churches controlled by Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and a so-called underground church loyal to the Vatican.
The two sides reached a historic deal in 2018 to end decades of conflict over who has the right to appoint bishops in China. Under the agreement, the pope recognized the legitimacy of several bishops previously appointed by Beijing but excommunicated by the Vatican, and the Chinese government in turn recognized the authority of the pope. The accord was renewed in October for another two years.
This article has been updated with comments from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.