10 Survivors of Religious Persecution Who Shared Their Stories at State Department’s Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

Survivors of religious persecution meet with President Donald Trump at the White House on July 17, 2019. | White House

Last week’s State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom worldwide was historic not only for the fact that it’s said to be the largest event of its kind ever held, but also because it united a diverse group of people from across the world who’ve been persecuted for their faith and culture.  

Nearly 30 survivors of religious persecution attended the second State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, an event that the Trump administration had promised would be a much larger version of the inaugural ministerial held last July.

Coming from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and even one person from the U.S. (Pittsburgh synagogue shooting survivor), the diversity of the survivors who attended was evidence that religious persecution affects people of many different religions and ethnicities worldwide.

In the following pages are 10 survivors of religious persecution who participated in the ministerial and last Wednesday’s White House meeting with President Donald Trump.

1. Yuhua Zhang — Falun Gong (China)

Zhang, who escaped from China in 2005, worked as a Russian language professor at Nanjing Normal University in China until she was expelled in 2002 after China began cracking down on members of Falun Gong, according to the State Department.

Zhang was arrested in 2011 and sent to a labor camp three different times. She spent a total of seven-and-a-half years in detention where she was severely tortured.

While speaking with reporters at the ministerial, Zhang said that not only was she forced to endure electric shocks but also faced sleep deprivation, forced drug injections and forced long-term standing.

Although she is now free, she says that her husband is still imprisoned.

“I really worry about him,” she said. “As many know, in China, the persecution of Falun Gong is [very brutal]. They are even force harvesting organs. I myself in prison was forced to take blood.”

Every three months, she said, her husband has blood taken from him.

Zhang elaborated further on her experience at the labor camps.

“When Falun Gong practitioners are sent to the prison, they first force you to give up Falun Gong,” she explained. “If you don’t say so, they begin torturing you. First they say, ‘You must think about your children and think about your wife and parents and so on. If this doesn’t change you, then they torture you physically.”

“For example, they didn’t allow me to go to bed or to sleep [in prison or labor camps]. In the room, there was no chair or nothing. You just stand there,” she said. “For me, they didn’t let me go to sleep … for [over a] week. They let you stand there until you cannot bear any more. Maybe you lose conscience and you say, ‘OK, I give up.’ Then, they let you sleep for one night.’”

Zhang said that it made her feel “humiliated” and as though she lost her “identity.”

“I have many cramps,” she added. “Many things they did to me I cannot even speak about.”

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s most recent report, over 900 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested in 2018 for practicing their beliefs or distributing literature.

2. Manping Ouyang — Christian (China)

Ouyang is the wife of Pastor Su Tianfu from the evangelical house church founded in 2009 called Living Stone Church in Guiyang.

She told reporters through a translator at the ministerial that the government considers the church illegal because it’s not registered with a state-recognized denomination. In December 2015, local authorities seized the church’s assets and auctioned off its property. She added that the church was “illegally banned” by China’s communist government.

“All of our spiritual literature in our church, including Bibles were confiscated,” she said through a translator. “Many of our brothers and sisters were put under house arrest, detained and some were even sentenced to imprisonment.”

In 2017, Ouyang’s husband was sentenced to one year of prison with two years reprieve while the church’s other Pastor, Yang Hua, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison after being charged with receiving “illegal income” from church donations.

“The government even put a heavy fine to our church, which is the equivalent of over $1 million,” she said.

Ouyang said that the Chinese government didn’t cite any law to justify its actions against the church.

“We were told we were not registered by joining the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement,” she said, adding that Pastor Yang Hua and her husband were charged with “leaking state secrets.”

As several underground churches in China have been shut down by the communist government and countless Christians arrested in connection with those churches, Ouyang called on people in the U.S. to pray for China and urge the Chinese government to stop its persecution of Christians and religious minorities.

3. Jewher Ilham — Uighur (China)

Ilham attended the ministerial to speak out on behalf of the imprisonment of her father, Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, and more than 1 million other Uighurs imprisoned in detention camps in Western China.

Ilham’s father was dedicated to bridging the gap between the predominantly Muslim Uighur community and the Han Chinese. Ilham’s father was detained by authorities while they were both waiting for a flight to the United States in 2013. Tohti was slated to become a visiting scholar at Indiana University.

While Ilham’s father was arrested, she was not.

“They just let me go and they expected me to be kicked out of U.S. because of my visa status but I am still very grateful that the U.S. accepted me,” Ilham told The Christian Post, adding that she just graduated from Indiana University two months ago.

In 2014, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison because of his promotion of peaceful coexistence between Uighurs and the Han Chinese. Ilham has not spoken to her father since 2014.

At the age of 18, Ilham started a new life in Indiana and has testified before government committees and entities on behalf of her father. Ilham is also the author of the book, Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father.

“Now, the Uighur people are experiencing a cultural genocide,” she said. “Not as many people have died so far [compared to the Holocaust] but we still have people dying and people have had their organs taken from them to the market for sell.”

“It’s not about one person, not about 100 people, it’s about 1 million, 2 million, 3 million peoples,” she added. “It’s a humanitarian issue. It’s not about politics.”

As reports have suggested that the Chinese government is imprisoning between 800,000 to 2 million Uighur Muslims in labor camps, the Chinese government recently allowed BBC to tour select Uighur detention facilities in Xinjiang province where prisoners were shown happily dancing and singing.

The Chinese government claims that the Uighurs, Kazaks and other minorities are living in these camps on their own free will.

“I have seen a few videos and it really reminds me of the videos I have seen about Nazi concentration camps,” Ilham told CP. “It is the same hand-clapping and the same dancing and singing. It’s all the same. But we have enough testimonies from camp survivors that can prove that all these are fake. Probably there are camps like that where people sing and dance but I am pretty sure the majority of us are suffering over there.”

4. Helen Berhane — Christian (Eritrea)

Berhane is a gospel singer from Eritrea who was arrested in 2004 for refusing a demand to cease participating in evangelical Christian activities.

In Eritrea, the government has been run by President Isaias Afwerki since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The state recognizes only four religious groups — Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, and the Catholic Church. This means that all other religious activity is illegal.

Berhane, the author of the 2009 book Song of the Nightingale: One Woman’s True Story of Faith and Persecution in Eritrea, was among the nearly 30 survivors of religious freedom who met with President Donald Trump at the White House last Wednesday.

She told the president that she was held for 32 months inside a metal shipping container.

According to the State Department, the shipping container lacked adequate ventilation, light, sanitation or food. Berhane was also regularly tortured while imprisoned.

Berhane was released from prison in 2006. She then escaped to Sudan.

Although she experienced horrifying conditions during her detention in Eritrea, she told Trump that she came to the ministerial to advocate on behalf of the “voiceless.”

“But the reason I am here — all our pastors, they are still in prison in Eritrea, including the [Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios],” she said. “So that is my message. I am a voice for those voiceless.”

Even for the officially recognized religious denominations, the state exerts much control over religious activities and leadership. Antonios is the rightful patriarch of the Orthodox church but has spent the last decade detained because of his opposition to state control in the church.

A day after Berhane raised Antonios’ case with the president, he was excommunicated from the church by pro-government bishops.

5. Dabrina Bet Tamraz — Christian (Iran)

Dabrina Bet Tamraz is the daughter of Iranian Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, who led a Farsi-language church in Iran until it was shut down in 2009. In 2017, the Tehran Revolutionary Guard sentenced her father to 10 years in prison for the crime of “acting against national security by forming home churches, attending seminars abroad and proselytizing Zionist Christianity.”

Tamraz’s mother, Shamiram Isavi, was also sentenced to five years in prison for similar charges.

Her brother, Ramiel Bet Tamraz, was sentenced to four months in prison for “spreading Christian propaganda.”

“In 2016, my brother was arrested during a picnic gathering. In 2017, my mother was arrested,” she told reporters. “Today, my father is appealing a 10-year prison sentence, my mother is appealing a five-year prison sentence, and my brother has already done two months and we are awaiting the rest of his sentence.”

Tamraz is speaking out on behalf of her Assyrian Christian family and other Christians imprisoned in Pakistan for their faith or for owning a Bible.

“Growing up as Christians in Iran, we experienced different forms of harassment and persecution,” she told reporters. “When I was 8 years old, many pastors were imprisoned and killed. … The persecution and limit to religious freedom was a normal thing for us growing up. To be honest, we didn’t know what it means to be free until I lived in a European country.”

Tamraz said that when the church was shut down in 2009, she was arrested and detained at a men’s detention center without any female officer present.

“I was able to escape after my release. Shortly after, my father was arrested during a Christmas celebration in December 2014. He was detained and put in solitary confinement for 65 days in a 3 feet by 6 feet room which was very dirty and full of insects,” she said. “He got an infection in his lungs and his teeth and his ears. At times he went without any human [contact] for over 10 days.”

Tamraz told reporters that many other Assyrian Christians and Christian converts are serving lengthy prison sentences in Iran and have no voice to be heard.

“They have no rights in our country,” she said. “I am standing here today to raise awareness.”

Tamraz also met with Trump in the White House and asked the president to raise the issue facing her family and other Christians in Iran when negotiating with Iran in the future. Trump said he would and asked for her information.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith