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  • McKena Ullman

Religious Freedom and the Uyghur Muslims

Updated: Feb 17

On January 19, 2021 the US State Department declared the atrocities against the Uyghur's, genocide.

Though society has made great strides towards religious protections, the current situation between China and the Uyghur Muslims merit far greater inspection. Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Chinese National, shared her story of religious persecution with The Guardian, “[I] was held in Baijiantan for two years. During that time, everyone around me – the police officers who came to interrogate prisoners, plus the guards, teachers, and tutors – tried to make me believe the massive lie without which China could not have justified its re-education project: that Uighurs are terrorists, and thus that I, Gulbahar, as a Uighur who had been living in exile in France for 10 years, was a terrorist... They had sentenced me to seven years of re-education. They had tortured my body and brought my mind to the edge of madness. And now, after reviewing my case, a judge had decided that no, in actual fact, I was innocent. I was free to go.”[1]


Gulbahar’s story, one of trial and trauma, is not a singularity. Uyghurs in China are facing these same abuses and worse, due to their religious beliefs. On January 19, 2021 the US State Department declared the atrocities against the Uyghur's, genocide. Mike Pompeo explained that these acts, committed by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) are designed to systematically discriminate against the Uyghurs by restricting their freedoms of travel, receiving an education, basic human rights of assembly, speech and worship, the destruction of their family units, and even their rights to leave the country who condemns them so. Very few individuals are able to exit the country, though many who have escaped left before the growth of persecution of their people in recent years. Gulbahar goes on to describe her family’s exit from their homeland.


“In seeking asylum, my husband had made a clean break with the past. Obtaining a French passport in effect stripped him of his Chinese nationality. For me, the prospect of turning in my passport held a terrible implication: I would never be able to return to Xinjiang. How could I ever say goodbye to my roots, to the loved ones I’d left behind – my parents, my brothers and sisters, their children? I imagined my mother, getting on in years, dying alone in her village in the northern mountains. Giving up my Chinese nationality meant giving up on her, too. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So instead, I’d applied for a residence permit that was renewable every 10 years.”[2]


The discussion of freedom of religion or belief is not always an easy one. However, it is necessary. Without discussion, there is little hope of stopping the ongoing human rights violations, much less initiate change. Rushan Abbas is a Uyghur-American activist who is one of the most prominent voices in speaking out against the Chinese Government. In an interview with The Journal of International Affairs in July of 2020, she discussed both the actions of the Chinese government and what she has done to fight against it. Her goal is to hold China accountable. She shared this with the Journal, “So we have a lot of work to do. We have to work harder to raise awareness about the problem. In my work, when I speak with people involved in China policy or human rights organizations, these people are aware of what’s happening to the Uyghur people. But many ordinary people are not. They have no idea that about three million people are in the concentration camps and are being used as slaves in the 21st century. China is getting away with it.”[3]


One of the most important jobs an activist holds is in raising awareness. To this end, Rushan has worked hard to make other countries recognize the horrors that have been suffered by the Uyghur People. Though there is much work left to be done, some countries are starting to recognize that horror facing this population. A statement given by the German Ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, at a UN meeting on human rights in October of 2020, led 39 countries in expressing their concern for the PRC’s actions.[4]


The statement called ‘China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office.[5] Though China has not responded, or halted any actions, we hope these countries will continue to pressure the PRC in improving conditions for all citizens within their borders. For now, we know the current conditions, and violence, apparent in the region will continue to grow. According to Rushan, “China is waging war on religion. It’s not only Uyghurs; they are also punishing Christians and Jewish people, Falun Gong practitioners. Any kind of original thought or faith is a threat to [a] communist totalitarian regime. Unless we fight this, together, I am afraid of what world we might leave for the next generation.” [6]


The purpose of this article, and the purpose of Bellwether International, is to raise awareness on issues concerned with Freedom of Religion. We can’t fight it alone. Fortunately, there are organizations dedicated specifically to this issue.

1. Uyghur American Association

2. Uyghur Human Rights Project

3. Save Uighur

4. World Uyghur Congress

Though this list is not exhaustive, and we still have much work to do, by joining Bellwether International— and the rest of these organizations— we can continue to raise awareness against the crimes that limit Freedom of Religion. Let’s hold accountable those countries, governments, and specific actors that would otherwise continue in their crimes.

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Sources:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/12/uighur-xinjiang-re-education-camp-china-gulbahar-haitiwaji [2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/12/uighur-xinjiang-re-education-camp-china-gulbahar-haitiwaji [3]“INTERNATIONAL ACTION TO PROTECT THE UYGHUR PEOPLE: An Interview with Rushan Abbas.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 73, no. 2, July 2020, pp. 211–215. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=f6h&AN=146689776&site=eds-live. [4] Full list of all 39 countries: Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Haiti, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Palau, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany. [5] https://new-york-un.diplo.de/un-en/news-corner/201006-heusgen-china/2402648 [6]“INTERNATIONAL ACTION TO PROTECT THE UYGHUR PEOPLE: An Interview with Rushan Abbas.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 73, no. 2, July 2020, pp. 211–215. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=f6h&AN=146689776&site=eds-live.

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