A recent report from an independent government commission says that some of the world's governments — including the repressive regimes of China and Iran — have made matters worse for people's religious freedom as a result of their efforts to address the spread of the new coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19.
The fact sheet — which the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom rolled out earlier this week — cites "activists concerns" that the Chinese government's response to the viral outbreak "risk exacerbating ongoing religious freedom violations" in the country.
Particularly, the report points to the country's previously reported detention of Uighur Muslims in concentration camps as a cause for concern, saying that a "combination of limited access to medical resources and large concentrations of elderly detainees could lead to a humanitarian disaster if the virus reaches any of those camps."
Furthermore, the document continues, "there are reports that authorities have forced Uighurs to work in factories throughout the country to compensate for decreased output during the quarantine," and that the regime "quarantined millions of people" in the Uighur province of Xinjiang "without advance warning" in January. Officials also point to reports that "some Uighur residents in the city of Ghulja have limited access to food and local officials have demanded payments in order to bring supplies."
The coronavirus outbreak started in China late last year and has since spread around the world. The regime has since been accused of lying about and trying to cover up the initial stages of the outbreak.
Meanwhile, the repressive regime in Iran has also made things worse for some members the country's own population of imprisoned religious minorities, according to USCIRF officials.
"On March 3, Iran announced it would release 54,000 prisoners on furlough, and it later released a total of 70,000," the fact sheet says. "However, 16 Sufi prisoners at Great Tehran Penitentiary (GTP) reportedly were moved to a ward with known cases of COVID-19, and 8 Sufis from Evin prison were moved to the same ward within GTP. Additionally, eight Sufis in Ghazalhasar Prison were moved to an overcrowded ward at that prison where they are at an increased risk of contracting the virus."
The Iranian and Chinese regimes' numerous violations of conscience rights have been well-documented for years. In a report put out late last year, USCIRF once again recommended labeling both nations as "countries of particular concern" for engaging in or tolerating "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom."
But virus-related religious freedom problems haven't been limited to countries already known for the repression of conscience rights, according USCIRF, which says that the hard-hit country South Korea "provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risk to marginalized religious groups."
Specifically, the commission describes the recent case of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, whose members had already "reported facing pressure from mainstream Protestant groups, and in some cases being subjected to deprogramming" before the outbreak of the virus, when a majority of the country's coronavirus cases were traced back to a single church member.
"Although some government measures appeared to be driven by legitimate public health concerns, others appeared to exaggerate the church's role in the outbreak," the fact sheet explains. "The government of Seoul locked down Shincheonji churches in the capital, and some mainline Protestant groups have accused the church of deliberately spreading the disease." The commission also points out that a petition to ban the church has gotten over one million signatures and that local prosecutors are looking at homicide charges against its founder for "homicide by 'willful negligence.'"
As of Wednesday, there were more than 210,000 confirmed cases of the virus around the world and over 8,700 resulting deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
"It is important for governments to account for religious freedom concerns in their responses to COVID-19, for reasons of both legality and policy effectiveness," the fact sheet's overview section explains. It adds that "considering religious freedom concerns can help build trust between governments and religious groups, who in past public health crises have played a critical role in delivering health interventions."