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Southern Baptists commend new law to aid Uyghurs in China

Uyghurs detainees in a camp in Lop County, Xinjiang, April 2017. Wikipedia Creative Commons

WASHINGTON (BP)—Southern Baptist advocates for Uyghur Muslims targeted by China’s genocidal campaign commended the enactment of a United States ban on the importation of goods made by forced labor in the Communist giant.

President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Thursday (Dec. 23), slightly more than six months after messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting resoundingly adopted a resolution that condemned the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) oppression of the Uyghurs. The resolution also called for the U.S. government to take “concrete actions” to end the genocide.

With its June 15 action, the SBC reportedly became the first Christian denomination to denounce China’s campaign against the Uyghurs as genocide.

The CCP’s efforts against the Uyghurs, a primarily Muslim group in western China, have included not only forced labor but widespread detention in “re-education” camps and a coercive population control program of abortion and sterilization.

“This is an important step to confront the Chinese Communist Party about its heinous enslavement of the Uyghur people,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “I am hopeful more actions to defend human dignity by America and our allies will follow this one.

“For Southern Baptists, this moment should be seen as a shared victory for the cooperating churches of our convention,” Leatherwood said in written comments for Baptist Press. “Six months ago, we spoke with one voice to condemn the genocide that is being carried out against the Uyghurs. That helped spur on more conversations, more advocacy and, ultimately, the legislative action needed to pass this bill. It proves that the voice of the SBC matters when it is focused, timely and rooted in scripture.”

Griffin Gulledge, pastor of Madison (Ga.) Baptist Church and author of the SBC resolution, told BP the new law is a significant advance “in upholding the inherent dignity of the Uyghur people and putting an end to the genocide perpetrated against them by the Chinese Communist government.”

“It is my hope and prayer that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, will take this opportunity to educate themselves on the plight of the Uyghurs,” Gulledge said in written remarks. “It is critical that we send a message that we will not tolerate or consume goods and services provided by forced labor, which is just another term for modern day slavery.

“I am grateful for leaders on both sides of the aisle who used their voice and influence and acted quickly but purposefully to put an end to this atrocity. May God bless their efforts, rescue the Uyghur people and show them the grace of Christ.”

Griffin Gulledge (center), pastor of Madison (Ga.) Baptist Church, receives the John Leland Religious Liberty Award from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) Sunday (Oct. 24). Brent Leatherwood (right), the ERLC’s acting president, presented the award. Jimmy Patterson, ERLC trustee from Georgia, also spoke at the ceremony. Photo by Carlotta White

Gulledge brought attention to the CCP’s campaign against the Uyghurs with a lengthy Twitter thread in July 2020 that went viral. He continued by submitting the resolution for the latest SBC meeting. The ERLC’s trustees voted unanimously in September to honor Gulledge with the entity’s annual Religious Liberty Award.

Sponsors of the legislation applauded the bill’s enactment.

“This is the most important and impactful action taken thus far by the United States to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable for their use of slave labor,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. “It will fundamentally change our relationship with Beijing. This law should also ensure that Americans no longer unknowingly buy goods made by slaves in China.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the law “sends a powerful, bipartisan message that the United States will not turn a blind eye.”

Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Chris Smith, R-N.J., were the lead sponsors in the House of Representatives.

After signing the legislation without a ceremony, Biden said on Twitter, “The United States will continue to use every tool at our disposal to ensure supply chains are free from the use of forced labor — including from Xinjiang and other parts of China.”

Leatherwood told BP, “Despite all the gridlock, it is still possible for good things to happen in Washington, and that’s just what happened with this bill becoming law.”

The new law prohibits products made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from being introduced into the American market. According to the measure, there will be a “rebuttable presumption” that “goods mined, produced, or manufactured” in Xinjiang are barred from importation to the United States. Exceptions to the ban include if “clear and convincing evidence” exists that an item was not produced “wholly or in part by forced labor.”

The CCP’s oppressive practices in the region include tracking Uyghur Muslims by means of a high-tech surveillance system that has obtained genetic data on many residents, according to reports. It is estimated more than one million of the 12 million Uyghurs, and maybe as many as three million, have been detained in “re-education” camps. Forced labor by prisoners is common. Life in the camps reportedly can result in indoctrination, as well as rape, torture and coercive organ harvesting. Uyghur women are also at the mercy of forced abortions and sterilizations.

Then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced in January on the last full day of the Trump administration his determination that China is guilty of genocide in Xinjiang. Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that designation after he took office under Biden.

According to a 1948 United Nations treaty, genocide is defined as murder and other acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Congressional supporters of the import ban had faced resistance from the White House and major corporations before gaining passage of the bill. The Biden administration urged Democrats to “essentially water [the bill] down,” according to a Dec. 2 column in The Washington Post. Companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola and Nike lobbied for a weaker measure because they benefit from the labor situation in Xinjiang, The New York Times reported late last year.

The Senate and House passed different versions of an import ban in July and early December, respectively. Rubio and McGovern said Dec. 14 they had agreed on a compromise, and the White House announced the same day that Biden would sign the bill. Also on that date, the House approved it without opposition. The Senate passed the proposal Dec. 16 by unanimous consent following a parliamentary delay.

After the report of administration efforts to weaken the bill, the ERLC’s Leatherwood wrote Blinken Dec. 3 to ask him to “do everything within his power” to gain passage of the legislation. The ERLC has long opposed China’s oppression of religious liberty and other human rights. Support for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was part of its public policy agenda this year.

The Biden administration announced Dec. 6 it has implemented a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing because of “China’s actions on Taiwan, human rights, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.” The Olympics are scheduled to begin Feb. 4. Australia, Britain and Canada are among other countries that have announced diplomatic boycotts.

With reporting by Brandon Porter, associate vice president for convention news at the SBC Executive Committee.