Egyptian authorities continued this week to round up and deport ethnic Uyghurs studying at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Islamic University, prompting some to appeal directly to the university’s senior imam for his help in preventing their forced return to China, sources said.
More than 200 Uyghurs, many of them religious students, have been detained since July 4, rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries, sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service in earlier reports.
As many as 80 others may now have been seized on Wednesday, according to a July 12 report in the Middle East Monitor, citing a source in the Egyptian security service.
The Uyghurs were arrested for “alleged irregularities in their residency papers,” the Monitor said in its report.
With many Uyghur students now detained or on the run, others linked to Chinese government-controlled student associations have recently appeared at meetings held in Cairo to welcome an official delegation from northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, Chinese diplomatic sources say.
“But these Uyghur students are few in number,” Ilshat Hassan, president of the U.S.-based Uyghur American Association, told RFA.
“And they are viewed as traitors by the majority of the Uyghur students who have been targeted [for removal],” Hassan said.
'In league with China'
Human rights and Uyghur exile groups have condemned China for violating the rights of the Uyghurs and breaking a UN treaty forbidding forced repatriations.
“The actions of the [Egyptian] government are in violation of international conventions against torture,” Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms, told RFA in an interview.
“[These] protect individuals who will face imprisonment, torture, and death should they be deported to their homes,” Jolly said.
“Egypt, a Sunni nation, is in league with China, and that is not a good sign.”
“I would like to call upon the Grand Imam. We met with him earlier this year,” Jolley said.
“He has a powerful voice. He leads Al-Azhar, and he should accept some role in protecting the students who attend this very prestigious university.”
Call for protection
In a recent letter, a group of Uyghur students living in Cairo meanwhile appealed to Dr. Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, to intervene to block further deportations to China.
“Our only sin is that we want to learn and study religion,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Arabic-language news outlet HuffPost Arabi.
“Egypt, where Al-Azhar is built, [should be] a safe haven for those who want to learn,” the letter said.
In a July 7 statement issued after a meeting the day before with a Xinjiang delegation arranged by China's ambassador to Egypt, Al-Azhar said that no Uyghur students had been arrested "inside Al-Azhar campus or from any buildings associated with Al-Azhar."
"The institution is following up with authorities in the wake of reports on social media," Al-Azhar said.
Speaking to an RFA reporter, an assistant to the press officer in the Egyptian embassy in Washington said she was not in a position to comment.
“I can’t say anything,” she said.
Reported by Mamatjan Juma and Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Richard Finney.