President Xi Jinping,
History is itself indebted to the invaluable contribution of a few great civilizations, like China’s. The Chinese civilization helped create the very framework of history, memory, and values that still inform our times. Some of those lessons inspire us—and others should serve as a wake-up call.
As you have demonstrated, modern China stands at a great crossroads of unprecedented opportunity.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, we have been encouraged as China seemed to be moving cautiously, but very deliberately, in the direction of economic and political openness and even of religious tolerance. We believe this period of change played a consequential role in the world’s acceptance and even embrace of China’s meteoric reclaiming of its historical role as a first-tier superpower. It seemed that the People’s Republic of China, under wise leadership, had absorbed a quintessential lesson from the preceding century – that tyranny limits prosperity.
Yet, today, we fear we witness a heart-sinking regression as the Chinese government seems to be reaching for an altogether different set of values, values anchored in a darker time when religion, and religious leaders, were viewed as a threat instead of as valued citizens.
We urge you, as the undisputed leader of your nation, to put a halt to the recent closure of places of worship, the detention of clergy and believing citizens, and to policies that have forced the “reeducation” of countless others, especially affecting your Muslim and Christian citizens. What should the world choose to think about a government that will arbitrarily place hundreds-of-thousands of its own citizens into internment camps to “reeducate” them, ” on the basis of their religion alone?
Of course, we understand the ongoing, existential threat the nations of the world, including China, face from terrorism. However, the most effective response is not massive incarceration of members of a group – which only guarantees more recruits for terrorism – but expanded cooperation with other countries to identify and deal with the global support system of terrorist groups and their state-sponsored enablers.
We have also chosen to use the word “citizen” to refer to these religious people, intentionally, because in our personal experience we have always found China’s religious citizens to be profoundly loyal to their country.
The vast majority of your religious citizens are loyal, they believe in the rise of China even as they do not believe that rise is threatened by their faith. In the words of King Solomon, a figure celebrated by Jews, Christians and Muslims, “it is good to grasp one and not let go of the other.”
In fact, their very faith demands that they are good citizens. As Jewish and Christian clergy, we remember the words of the Prophet Jeremiah to, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” The Prophet further said, “to Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, we will also prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7.)
We appeal to you to order your officials to invest greater trust in your own citizens who are believers in allowing them to pray to their G-d as their conscience demands. They pose no threat to their government or their neighbors.
The true test of a great civilization is not only its prosperity, its technology or its strength but its acceptance and tolerance of its people. No country, large or small, can claim to be great—let alone to be a leader in the world—while arbitrarily suppressing the small but steadfast prayers of a believer.
Furthermore, rather than giving the world the impression that Chinese society is threatened by the free exercise of religion, China should, in fact, become a world leader that sees the value of pluralism and diversity in its society.
Imagine if the People’s Republic of China invested the same effort in identifying, inspiring, and multiplying the efforts of the worlds moderates—including the faithful—instead of pursuing an arcane and arbitrary approach to combating extremism? There are better ways.
As friends of China, we stand ready to work together with everyone in your country—believers and atheists—to help build a brighter future for all our children and, in doing so, we will fulfill the ultimate goal of religion in the first place: being a blessing for all humanity.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean and Director of the Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rev. Johnnie Moore is the President of the Congress of Christian Leaders and a Commissioner on the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom.