Pope Francis’s Silence on Xinjiang Speaks Volumes
A pope dedicated to human rights has said nothing on China, thanks to a secret deal with Beijing.
This month, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote a most courageous letter to the Chinese ambassador in London.
In the letter, Marie van der Zyl took an extraordinary step for the leader of Britain’s main Jewish organization—she drew comparisons between the plight of the Uighurs in China today and the Holocaust. Nobody could see the evidence and fail to note, she wrote, “the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.”
Van der Zyl is just one of many faith leaders to speak out against the atrocities being committed in Xinjiang. But one voice has been strangely absent—that of Pope Francis, ordinarily a powerful advocate for the oppressed. His silence speaks to the dangers of the deal made with China by the Vatican—and demands that others in the church speak out.
Before van der Zyl’s letter, there was the decision by Jewish News to highlight the discovery of 13 metric tons of Uighur hair—with “Nazi resonance”—on the front page of the newspaper.
The letter was followed by a Twitter thread by the widely respected former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who wrote: “As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people being shaven headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing. That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorised, victimised, intimidated and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself.”
Around the same time, Maajid Nawaz, a prominent Muslim counterextremism activist, went on hunger strike for the Uighurs. Nawaz, a former radical Islamist who now devotes his time to fighting intolerance of all kinds courageously and successfully, promoted a petition for a parliamentary debate on imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions on the Chinese regime for its treatment of the Uighurs.
And last Saturday, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, the outspoken Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, released a statement mostly about Turkey’s Hagia Sophia mosque—but which included: “In China, the Uyghur Muslims are facing what amounts to some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities and I urge the international community to investigate.”
Yet so far, the world has heard nothing from the world’s major Muslim and Christian leaders. Muslim-majority countries have, mostly, sided with China—shamefully and in pursuit of narrow and elusive economic interests. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said nothing. Neither has Francis.
It is Francis’s silence that shocks me most. Almost every Sunday, as he prays the Angelus, he rightly references some injustice somewhere in the world. He has spoken often in the past not only of the persecution of Christians around the world but of the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar; the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Nigeria; and religious freedom for all.
One country—and one country alone—is noticeable by its absence in his prayers and statements: China.
In China today, we see one of the 21st century’s worst crimes—perhaps a genocide—being perpetrated against the Uighurs. But in addition, we see the most flagrant violation of an international agreement in China’s imposition of the new national security law on Hong Kong—a law that destroys Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy. We also see the worst crackdown on Christians since the Cultural Revolution, while the repression in Tibet continues.
Yet in the face of all of these crimes, Francis remains silent. He has not uttered a public prayer (I hope he has at least said a private one) for the Uighurs, Hong Kongers, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, and others who are increasingly feeling the pressure of the Chinese Communist Party’s boot—at all.
Two years ago, the Vatican made a deal with Beijing that bought the pope’s silence. When I say “bought,” I am not suggesting impropriety. I love this pope and his focus on mercy and forgiveness. On almost every other matter—and I write as a Catholic who converted seven years ago and came into the church in, of all places, Myanmar—I agree with Francis. So I write not as a hard-line conservative hostile to Francis but rather as someone who loves him but is perplexed by how badly wrong he has gone on China.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Vatican-Beijing deal is that the text remains secret. If it is such a good arrangement in the eyes of the Holy See, why can’t ordinary Catholics—and the world at large—know what it says? What we do know is that it gives the Chinese Communist Party—an avowedly atheist regime—a direct role in the appointment of Catholic bishops and that it has already led to the forced retirement of several underground bishops loyal to the Vatican in favor of state-approved bishops until recently out of communion with the church.
And it has not led to any improvement in freedoms for Catholics. If anything, the situation has worsened. No clergy imprisoned before the deal have been released, and several have been arrested, detained, and disappeared since the deal was agreed. Far from bringing the desired unity or protection for the church, it has caused greater division and more repression.
But that deal had the effect of silencing Francis, for whatever reason, and it breaks my heart. As the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, wrote in the Tablet recently, it seems that the Vatican “may be cosying up to a Chinese Communist Party at the worst conceivable moment, just as it is embarking on a loutish rampage in China and beyond.”
I spoke out early on, two years before the deal with Beijing was signed, in an open letter. I tried to warn the Holy See again of the dangers it may be entering into. And while never questioning the pope’s motivations—which are noble and are about protecting people in China and renewing his fellow Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s engagement with the country—I profoundly question the judgment of those around him. Out of naivety, Francis’s Vatican has sold out to one of the world’s most repressive and aggressive regimes.
That is the story so far. But it need not be the end of the tale.
It is not inevitable that the wonderful Board of Deputies of British Jews, Britain’s former chief rabbi, Nawaz, a few of my friends, and I stand with the Uighurs in the face of one of the contemporary world’s worst atrocities and that Francis and Welby do not. Welby’s silence is difficult to explain—other than, like Francis, a naive belief that China’s is a regime with which one can still engage and reason. The reality is that the regime has moved from a pragmatic desire to exercise certain controls over religion to one driven by a repressive, ideological urge to tighten its grip. That was clearly signaled by the abolition of the State Administration for Religious Affairs in 2018, which had working relationships with most faiths. Those relationships are now handled, much more crudely and brutally, by the United Front Work Department, which is directly responsible for ideological control of non-party groups.
So it is now time that these two key Christian leaders wake up, review their position, cross the Rubicon, and say enough is enough.
They need to signal clearly that they believe in the teachings of their faith—of human dignity, freedom, and justice—which matter more than any shady deals with brutal regimes.
They need to abandon naivety. They need to say they won’t compromise when it comes to human life and dignity.
And they need to recognize that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant pastor who stood up against Adolf Hitler, was right when he said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. … Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
They need to respect the memory of Maximilian Kolbe, venerated as a saint for giving his life for another’s at the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
They need to say clearly: We are all Uighurs, Hong Kongers, Chinese Christians, Tibetans, and Falun Gong practitioners now.
Let Francis and Welby say so.
Or forever lose their—and our—peace.