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In Indonesia, Pompeo Urges Muslims to Challenge China’s Xinjiang Policies

In Indonesia, Pompeo Urges Muslims to Challenge China’s Xinjiang Policies

Seeking closer trade and investment ties with Beijing, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country has refrained from criticism

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Indonesians to take a firm stand against China’s treatment of its ethnic minority Muslims, seeking to rally support on the issue in the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority country—whose government has been wary of criticizing Beijing.

Mr. Pompeo delivered the remarks to a Muslim youth group in the Southeast Asian country Thursday. It was one of the Trump administration’s most direct attempts to persuade Muslims to challenge Beijing on its policies in Xinjiang, the far-western province where human-rights groups say authorities have put a million or more mostly Muslim Uighurs in re-education camps.

“I know the Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince Indonesians to look away from the torments your fellow Muslims are suffering. I know these same CCP officials have spun fantastic tales of happy Uighurs, eager to discard their ethnic, religious and cultural identities to become more ‘modern’ and enjoy the benefits of CCP-led development,” Mr. Pompeo said. “When you hear these arguments, I just ask you to do this: Search your hearts. Look at the facts, listen to the tales of the survivors and their families.”

In large parts of Southeast Asia, Washington’s increasingly vocal position on Xinjiang is seen with skepticism by officials who say they don’t want to be dragged into the escalating U.S.-China rivalry or be forced to pick sides. Indonesia, a country of more than 260 million people, has close trade and investment links to China and has signed deals to import millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines from Chinese companies.

It is among many Muslim-majority countries whose leaders have avoided putting serious pressure on Beijing over Xinjiang.

China for its part has sought to blunt international criticism. It launched a campaign around two years ago to persuade Indonesia’s religious leaders and journalists that the camps, which it calls vocational training centers, are a well-meaning effort to provide job training and combat extremism.

Mr. Pompeo’s remarks sought to undercut Beijing’s campaign.

“The atheist Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince the world that its brutalization of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang is necessary as a part of its counterterrorism efforts or poverty alleviation,” he said. “We know that there is no counterterrorism justification for forcing Uighur Muslims to eat pork during Ramadan, or destroying a Muslim cemetery.”

China’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. China has said it fully protects the human and religious rights of all ethnic minorities and denies there are detention camps in Xinjiang.

When asked about Mr. Pompeo’s statements, a spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry, Teuku Faizasyah, referred to his past statement that Indonesia has expressed to China the importance of protecting and promoting the rights of minorities, including the Muslim communities in Xinjiang.

“Indonesia continuously encourages China to be transparent and to allow access to Xinjiang, especially for Indonesians who are keen to observe and understand recent developments there,” he has said.

Mr. Pompeo is visiting five Asian countries with a message criticizing China’s more assertive stance in the region. In a speech in Rome last month, Mr. Pompeo pressed the Vatican to call out Beijing for religious persecution, saying “nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China.”

The Trump administration has sharpened its rhetoric and downgraded its diplomacy toward China as the two countries increasingly find themselves at odds on matters from the handling of the coronavirus pandemic to Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Mr. Trump has made being tough on China a key part of his campaign message, as he did in 2016.

Mr. Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, has taken a different approach from some other top diplomats by emphasizing religion in his policy-making and focusing on a set of human rights linked to religion and traditional U.S. political philosophy. “As an evangelical Christian, my faith informs how I live, and work, and think,” he said Thursday.

The Islamic group Mr. Pompeo addressed Thursday, Ansor, is the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, known to advocate religious tolerance. But Nahdlatul Ulama’s leaders have taken equivocal positions on Xinjiang.

In a book the organization published last year, its leader, Said Aqil Siroj, cautioned against outside interference in Xinjiang, calling it “a complicated problem that is related to Chinese government sovereignty.” He advised his followers not to rely only on mass media or international television reports to understand the situation.

Mr. Siroj also wrote that if the problems in Xinjiang are related to the rights of the Muslim community, then “of course it must become a matter of attention for all of us.”

Aaron Connelly, a Singapore-based research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, called Mr. Pompeo’s speech risky. “On the one hand, Pompeo has an interest in amplifying the abuses in Xinjiang, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to put groups like Nahdlatul Ulama offside,” he said.

“And this is a clear point of disagreement between Pompeo—and it must be said much of the Western world—and Nahdlatul Ulama,” he said, referring to Chinese actions in Xinjiang.

China has lobbied Indonesian religious figures, including those from Nahdlatul Ulama, in part by taking them on a tour of Xinjiang and its re-education facilities, the Journal reported last year. Some of those who went on the tour took a Beijing-friendly stance afterward, but representatives of their organizations later denied that China’s outreach had persuaded them.

Of the 39 countries that signed an October letter delivered at the United Nations expressing concerns over reports of gross human-rights violations in Xinjiang, only two—Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina—are heavily Muslim.

By Jon Emont and William Mauldin

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