Nearly 100 Uyghurs from China are stranded in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport as authorities there detained them for allegedly traveling on fake passports as they attempted to undertake the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj, relatives and friends of the detainees told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The Chinese government severely limits the number of passports issued to Muslims in that country who want to undertake the Hajj. The restrictions hit Uyghurs particularly hard as they often don’t have the influence or money needed to secure a passport for the journey.
According to friends, relatives and Turkish news reports, 98 Uyghurs were detained in the airport by Turkish authorities on May 17 for attempting to travel on fake Kyrgyzstan passports. The Uyghurs allegedly flew into Istanbul on their Chinese passports, but were given the Kyrgyz passports when they were changing planes to continue their journey.
“These 98 people were supposed to fly to Cyprus from Ataturk airport and from Cyprus to Saudi Arabia,” Ehmet Momin, a Uyghur living in Saudi Arabia told RFA. “When they did not arrive on time as they should, I made a phone call to Istanbul, and my friend in Istanbul told me that after the passports were stamped, they were stopped from boarding the plane.”
Seytim Tumturk, vice chairman of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, told RFA that Beijing’s refusal to grant passports to Muslims wishing to undertake the Hajj caused people to take the extraordinary steps to make the trip.
“If they traveled with fake passports, it is because of the Chinese government’s Hajj pilgrimage restrictions,” he said. “When they do not have other options, they choose to make the Hajj from other countries. We do not know how they got the passports and visas, but it is also possible that Turkey blocked the Uyghurs using misinformation from the Chinese government.”
Journey of a lifetime
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetimes by all adults who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey. It is one of the so-called Five Pillars of Islam and one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world.
A Uyghur living in Turkey, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that his 73-year-old mother has been trying to make the Hajj for a decade, but each year she was stymied by Chinese authorities.
“My mother has been submitting applications to be in the list for a passport for the Hajj for the past 10 years, but she was rejected every time,” he said. “Since my mother was pleading with us to take her on the Hajj, we took her to Kyrgyzstan to start their journey with a travel agency there.”
The Turkish Uyghur said he did not know what passport his mother was using for the journey.
“I heard they were blocked with the Kyrgyz passport,” he said. “We paid the travel agency a lot of money. I never thought they would be stopped in Turkey. We do not what to do or to whom to plea.”
According to a Timeturk.com report, the Uyghurs paid about $2,800 for the passports and $300 for the tickets. Four people were taken into custody, Timeturk reported. The nationality of those arrested was not reported.
The ‘three evils’
China has vowed to crack down on the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where most Uyghurs live, but experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
The Timetruk report said the Uyghurs would be returned to China. While their fate is unclear, they could face charges in China.
No matter what, their Hajj is likely over.
“Right now, they are being held inside the international airport,” Ehmet Momin told RFA. “I met about 50 Uyghurs in Jidda who came to meet the relatives and their friends. After we got the news they left in sadness and in tears.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFAs Uyghur Service. Translated by Memetjan Juma. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.