The US government commission on religious freedom on Wednesday called for targeted sanctions against China over the ethnic unrest in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said it was “gravely concerned” about China’s “repression” of the cultural and religious traditions of the Uighurs, the ethnic group native to the vast, arid Xinjiang region.
China says 192 people died on July 5 in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in the country’s worst ethnic violence in decades, pitting Uighurs against the growing number of settlers from China’s Han majority.
The religious freedom commission called for US President Barack Obama to consider sanctions on exports coming from Xinjiang or travel restrictions on Chinese government officials in charge of the region.
“Protests such as those occurring last week happen for a reason,” said Leonard Leo, the chairman of the commission.
“Beijing has pushed its ethnic and religious minorities, its human rights lawyers, its labor activists and its free speech advocates to the wall. The international community must speak up,” he said.
The commission, which includes appointees of both main US political parties, monitors religious freedom abroad and makes recommendations to policymakers but cannot impose sanctions on its own.
Any attempts to slap sanctions on China, the largest creditor to the heavily indebted US, could face a tough sell in Washington, where the Obama administration has sought a broad partnership with Beijing.
The Congress in 2000 gave China the trading status of most favored nation, putting an end to annual votes that had turned into fights over Beijing’s human rights and commercial policies.
The religious freedom commission also called for an independent investigation into the violence in Xinjiang.
China says it has brought development to Xinjiang and has called for national unity among the country’s various ethnicities. China says most of the victims of the violence were ethnic Hans killed and injured in “rioting” by Uighurs.
But Rebiya Kadeer, the Washington-based leader of exiled Uighurs, told a meeting of the religious freedom commission that Chinese forces used indiscriminate force on peaceful protests.
“You can compare it to the Tiananmen Square massacre,” Kadeer told the commission.
Kadeer contrasted the international response to the global uproar last year over violence in Tibet.
“Last year in Tibet, we saw tremendous international support and concern. In our case the international response is a bit hesitant,” she said.
She called on Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “raise this issue at the highest level with Chinese officials.”
“My hope is that Americans can see that we are just like the Tibetans, suffering the same persecution and yearning for the same religious freedom,” she said.
The White House has said it is “deeply concerned” by the violence in Xinjiang and called for restraint.
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