Uyghur exile groups marked the start to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Friday by urging the international community to speak out on behalf of members of their ethnic group enduring persecution in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Ramadan, a time when millions of Muslims around the world would normally gather with their families and friends, has been impacted by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing many adherents of Islam to remain confined to their homes.
On Friday, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said that the difficulties of celebrating Ramadan during the outbreak highlight the importance of being able to practice one’s religion freely, participate in community life, and enjoy basic rights—all of which are denied to the Uyghur people under 70 years of increasingly harsh Chinese rule.
“We urge Muslims all over the world to keep the Uyghur people in their thoughts and prayers during the holy month of Ramadan and to call on their respective governments to demand that China immediately ceases its religious persecution of Uyghurs,” the group said in a statement.
“The WUC looks forward to a day when Uyghurs can join Muslims all over the world in observing Ramadan, unencumbered by CCP (Chinese Communist Party) repression.”
The WUC noted that even the most basic expressions of religious sentiment are banned by the Chinese government in the XUAR and said authorities are trying to erode practice entirely through the mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in internment camps, the indoctrination of younger Uyghurs, and the launch of a campaign to “sinify” Islam in China.
“For years, Uyghurs in East Turkistan have not been able to fully observe Ramadan due to the heavy religious persecution and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government,” the group said, using Uyghurs preferred name for the territory.
“The Chinese government has banned Uyghur civil servants, students and teachers from fasting during the holy month, providing food and water to students throughout the day. Access to mosques is more tightly controlled, restaurants have been ordered to remain open and in some cases Uyghur intellectuals have been arrested beforehand to silence criticism.”
Uyghur retirees are also forced to pledge ahead of Ramadan that they won’t fast or pray to set an example for the wider community and to assume responsibility for ensuring others also refrain, the group said, while those in the camps are prohibited from engaging in any religious activity.
But the WUC noted that Muslim-majority nations and leaders have been “shamefully silent” on the persecution of Uyghurs in the XUAR.
“For three years, Uyghurs have been waiting for the Muslim world to speak on our behalf and hold the Chinese government accountable,” WUC president Dolkun Isa said.
“During Ramadan in 2020, we urge Muslim leaders around the world to reconnect with the beliefs and values they hold and to do what is right by demanding China stop its crimes against humanity against Uyghurs.”
‘Waging a war on Islam’
A day earlier, Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU) urged the global community not to forget the up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities believed to have been held in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps since 2017, who it said have been “brainwashed to believe that this holy month is immoral and criminal.”
“Ramadan is a time for Muslims to be with their family—a luxury that many Uyghurs in diaspora do not have,” the group said.
“Their daily lives are riddled with distress, fear, and worry for themselves, their families, and friends.”
CFU noted that large numbers of Uyghur youths have been transferred from the XUAR into other parts of China where they are made to work in forced labor facilities and Uyghur children whose parents are detained in camps are regularly placed in state-run orphanages. Previous reports by RFA have documented these policies.
All the while, “China is waging a war on Islam,” the group said, forcing Uyghurs to “forsake their religion, culture, language, and history.”
“For Muslims, fasting reminds us of the suffering, struggle, and pain of others—we put ourselves in the shoes of those less fortunate,” it said.
“Therefore, we ask you to do the same. Remember the Uyghurs who are ripped away from their families, those who are persecuted for their peaceful religion, and those who continue to be prisoners with no crime.”
The Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) also offered its best wishes for a safe and peaceful Ramadan but said the holy month “reminds us of the critical importance of serving others, especially the most vulnerable, during these difficult times.”
“During Ramadan, we hope that you will join us in praying for the safety and wellbeing of the Uyghur nation,” the group said.
“Under Chinese Communist Party rule, Uyghurs are prohibited from fasting and praying during the holy month of Ramadan. Despite all of this, the world remains largely silent.”
The groups were also joined by Taiwan-based Uyghur dissident Orkesh Dolet, commonly known as Wu'erkaixi, in wishing a happy Ramadan to the Uyghur diaspora.
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service on Friday, the former prominent student leader of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square protests noted that on holidays such as Ramadan “we miss our loved ones even more,” adding that he would “pray for their wellbeing.”
“These days, we definitely feel that our spirit is under pressure,” he said. “Even so, we should lift our spirits during this holiday. I pray for you all to be safe during this pandemic.”
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region, which also include the use of advanced technology and information to control and suppress its citizens.
Last year, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the internment camps in the XUAR “one of the worst human rights crises of our time” and “truly the stain of the century.”
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.