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These religious freedom advocates want the 2022 Olympics to be moved

Human rights activists say that China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong protesters should disqualify it from hosting the Olympics

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19 look at an exhibit tied to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
Attendees wearing face masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19 look at an exhibit at a visitors center at the Winter Olympic venues in Yanqing on the outskirts of Beijing, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, one year ahead of the scheduled opening of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
Mark Schiefelbein, Associated Press
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When Ziba Murat last spoke to her mother, the older woman urged her to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” Murat’s daughter was then just 3 months old, and Murat, like many new parents, was struggling to get enough rest.

Nearly three years on from that phone conversation, Murat still doesn’t sleep well, but, most nights, it has nothing to do with her daughter. She often lies awake worrying about her mother, who is one of millions of Uyghur Muslims who have been detained by the Chinese government in the past few years.

“September of 2018 is when I last heard my mom’s voice. I haven’t heard from her since,” Murat said during a Heritage Foundation event about the 2022 Beijing Olympics on Aug. 5.

Last December, Murat and her family got a discouraging update, learning that Murat’s mother, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly supporting terrorism. They’ve been doing what they can since then to secure her release.

“Since my mother’s detainment, life seems like a painful waiting game full of anxiety and frustration,” Murat said.

As the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing approaches, her frustration only grows. Murat and others who are outraged by China’s human rights record don’t understand why the Games haven’t been postponed and moved.

“China is not a responsible international actor,” said Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst with Heritage’s Asian Studies Center, during the Aug. 5 event.

If the International Olympic Committee and world leaders allow the Beijing Olympics to take place in February as planned, they’ll send the message that the mass imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims or recent attacks on Hong Kong are excusable, said Dean Cheng, who works with Enos at Heritage.

“It seems pretty clear that China’s leadership believes ... it can act with impunity,” said Cheng, who is a senior research fellow with Heritage’s Asian Studies Center.

Children hold signs during a demonstration by a coalition representing Tibetans, Uyghurs, Southern Mongolians, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese and Chinese rights activists Wednesday, June 23, 2021 in Boston. About 30 gathered to protest China holding the 2022 Olympic Games.
Charles Krupa, Associated Press

In the past, the international community has not done enough to ensure that Olympic hosts support human rights, Enos said. For example, in 1936, the Nazi regime was empowered to use the Berlin Olympics to “sanitize” its image.

In 1980, the U.S. did fully boycott the Moscow Games over concerns about Russia’s foreign policy. But the Games went on as planned and American athletes were really the only ones who suffered, Enos said.

“There’s no reason why American athletes need to be punished in our efforts to hold the Chinese accountable,” she noted.

What the U.S. and other countries should do instead is work together to force the International Olympic Committee to postpone and relocate the Games, Enos said.

At the very least, countries should condition the participation of their diplomats on the Chinese government’s willingness to allow them to visit with religious and political prisoners, like Murat’s mother, she added.

“There’s no reason for us to be repeating historical mistakes,” Enos said.


Fresh off the press

As the COVID-19 pandemic ramps up again, vaccine mandates are becoming more common. My latest story explores the legal rights of religious objectors, including how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of a Catholic foster care agency could benefit them.


Term of the week: Strict scrutiny

In my article about vaccine mandates, I wrote about a legal review process in which the government must carefully explain to the court why interfering with someone’s religious beliefs is necessary and unavoidable. What I didn’t say was that the process I was describing is called strict scrutiny.

To put it simply, strict scrutiny puts the government on the defensive. It forces officials to prove that whatever law or action is being challenged serves an important goal that can’t be achieved in some other, less controversial way.

If you’re a person seeking a religious exemption, “strict scrutiny is your friend,” explains Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs for the University of Illinois System.


What I’m reading ...

Earlier this year, I shared an article about a Jewish baseball player who wants to become the first Sabbath-observant player to make the Major Leagues. This week, I stumbled upon another interesting religion and baseball story about the first turbaned Sikh to play for an NCAA team. “The people around me, my own beliefs and my religion have helped me accept myself and be proud of who I am,” Samrath Singh, who plays for Boston College, told Religion News Service.

Kenny and Jennifer Campbell didn’t know what to expect when their daughter, Caroline, was diagnosed with Down syndrome. They tried to be prepared for unexpected challenges, but also unexpected moments of grace. The family recently spoke with Christianity Today about a special project that fell into the latter category: Caroline recently finished copying the entire Bible by hand.

My Deseret News colleague, Mya Jaradat, recently spoke with Sister Norma Pimentel about her path to becoming one of America’s best-known immigration activists. I was amazed to learn that Pizza Hut played a big role in Sister Norma’s religious journey.


Odds and ends

The Conversation recently published an overview of religious life in China, which explores the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to ensure that only government-approved faith groups gain a footing in the country.

These religion-related items on the internet made me smile this week: 1. The lego version of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. 2. Religion reporters celebrating Britney Spears’ Instagram post about going to Mass. 3. Tim Tebow got teased by The Onion.