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Pompeo Says China 'Gravest Threat to Future of Religious Freedom'


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and General Secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama Yahya Cholil Staquf hold a discussion at the Nahdlatul Ulama in Jakarta Oct. 29, 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday described Communist-run China as “the gravest threat to the future of religious freedom,” during a visit to Indonesia.

Secretary Pompeo praised the majority-Muslim nation’s embrace of democracy and tolerance of other religions during a speech in Jakarta before Nahdlatul Ulama, a liberal Muslim group that acts as a counterweight against hardline Islamic movements.

Calling on religious leaders “to be a moral witness” and speak out on behalf of people of all faiths, Pompeo touched on what he called China’s “war” against Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and practitioners of the outlawed Falun Gong sect.

The top U.S. diplomat specifically mentioned Beijing’s “brutalization” of the ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, where they are subject to a brutal crackdown by Communist Chinese authorities, including the mass incarceration of as many as one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in detention centers.

China denies mistreating Uighurs and says the centers provide vocational training and are needed to tackle extremism and promote development.

Pompeo said Chinese authorities "have spun fantastic tales of happy Uighurs, eager to discard their ethnic, religious and cultural identities to become 'modern.'”

During his Thursday speech in Jakarta, the secretary of state also addressed the “violent oppression” of Muslim Rohingyas at the hands of Myanmar's military, and the Iranian regime’s persecution of Baha’is, Christians, Sunni Muslims and other minority groups.

The chairman of the Anshor Youth Movement, which is affiliated with the world’s largest Islamic organization, said in an interview with VOA the group is ready to join others in a campaign of peace on a global scale.

“We stand ready to strive alongside people of good will of every faith and nation to foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being," said Yaqut Cholil Qoumas.

Pompeo’s stop in Indonesia comes after visits to New Delhi, India, Colombo, Sri Lanka and Male, Maldives. While in Indonesia, he met with leaders, including President Joko Widodo, to “affirm the two countries’ vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

In this photo released by Indonesian Presidential Palace, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wave to photographers at Bogor Presidential Palace in Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, Oct. 29, 2020.
In this photo released by Indonesian Presidential Palace, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wave to photographers at Bogor Presidential Palace in Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, Oct. 29, 2020.

Boosting US-Indonesia ties

Enny Sri Hartati, an economist with the Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance said Indonesia should be able to take advantage of this momentum to boost economic cooperation with the U.S.

"The point is Indonesia, from a geo-economic perspective, has a very strategic role, that is what makes the U.S. really interested in Indonesia," said Hartati. "If Indonesia can play it well, the country can use several mutually beneficial bilateral agreements as negotiation tools.”

The challenge for Indonesia, according to University of Indonesia American Studies Chair Suzie Sudarman, is to strike a balance in the relationship with the U.S. and China.

“For example, how to keep China from being overly aggressive with Indonesia and for Indonesia not to be dictated by the U.S. That requires flexibility from the government, said Sudarman.

An international security expert with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Nanto Sriyanto, said Jakarta and Washington share interests regarding Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna Islands.

Sriyanto said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi invited the U.S. to focus more on investing in the outer islands, including Natuna, as part of its strategy to maintain sovereignty in the area due to the increasing tensions in the South China Sea.

"[The U.S.] respects Indonesia's maritime sovereignty rights in Natuna and wants to cooperate in a new mechanism," said Hartati. "...Indonesia has also invited Japan [to invest]. This is an interesting move from Indonesia [because] of how it refocuses on the economic aspect, but [is] also related to the security aspect."

Pompeo arrived in Vietnam late Thursday, the last stop that was added to his regional tour, to strengthen U.S.-Vietnam relations, according to the U.S. State Department.

Fathiyah Wardah, Sasmito Madrim and Ghita Intan Permatasari of VOA's Indonesian Service contributed reporting.