By Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made religious freedom a centerpiece of his foreign policy, met on Wednesday with victims of religious persecution from countries including China, Turkey, North Korea, Iran and Myanmar.
Trump counts evangelical Christians among his core supporters and the State Department is hosting a conference on the topic this week that will be attended by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Four of the 27 participants in the Oval Office meeting were from China, the White House said: Jewher Ilham, a Uighur Muslim; Yuhua Zhang, a Falun Gong practitioner; Nyima Lhamo, a Tibetan Buddhist; and Manping Ouyang, a Christian.
China sentenced Ilham’s father, Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and Uighur rights advocate, to life in prison on charges of separatism in 2014, drawing condemnation at the time from the United States and international rights groups.
Nearly two dozen nations at the U.N. Human Rights Council this month urged China to halt persecution of ethnic Uighurs in its western region of Xinjiang, where U.N. experts and activists say at least 1 million are held in detention centers.
The Trump administration has been weighing sanctions against Chinese officials over their policies in Xinjiang, including the Communist Party chief of the region, Chen Quanguo, but has held back amid Chinese threats of retaliation.
Relations between the United States and China are already tense over a tit-for-tat trade war, with the United States alleging that China engages in unfair trading practices.
Reuters reported in May that the U.S. administration was considering sanctions on Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision over the country’s treatment of Uighurs, citing a person briefed on the matter.
The Chinese government rejects any suggestion that it abuses religious rights and human rights.
“I must point out that in China this situation of so-called religious persecution does not exist,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
“We demand that the United States correctly view China’s religious policies and the status of religious freedom in China, and stop using the issue of religion to interfere in other countries’ affairs,” Lu said.
Also present at the meeting were Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, the White House said. On Tuesday, Pompeo announced sanctions against Myanmar military’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and other leaders it said were responsible for extrajudicial killings of Rohingya in 2017, barring them from entry to the United States.
Trump’s ambassador for religious freedom, Sam Brownback, said during Wednesday’s meeting that the administration would announce “additional measures” on religious freedom at the State Department meeting on Thursday.
Among the other victims who met Trump were Christians from Myanmar, Vietnam, North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Cuba, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Sudan; Muslims from Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and New Zealand; Jews from Yemen and Germany; a practitioner of Cao Dai from Vietnam; and a Yezidi from Iraq.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu; editing by Dan Grebler and Sonya Hepinstall)