Repressed for over six decades, they often seem to be a forgotten minority in China. A recent report on the human rights abuses against the Uyghur people provides an exhaustive and meticulous account of how the Chinese communist authorities currently control and restrict their religious practices and culture.
Uyghurs are a minority group mainly based in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region; they practice what the report calls a “moderate form of Islam,” and their Islamic faith is a defining part of their cultural identity. The new report is published by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a research and advocacy group based in Washington.
An example of how the Communist Party deals with Uyghurs took place on May 10, 2009, when the police burst in on a gathering of seven Uyghur university students, who had met to discuss religious issues, according to the report. A number of them were sent to 15 days of detention and given hefty fines, while two of them, aged 27 and 24, have been in detention since mid-2009. No one has heard from them or knows where they are.
The Chinese regime also restricts what might otherwise be mundane lifestyle choices—such as how long to grow one’s beard, or whether or not to not eat at certain times of the day. Both practices have religious meaning for Uyghurs; the authorities ban them.
Religious leaders are given what the Party calls “political education,” a process that may be otherwise termed brainwashing, where they are made to study and recite Communist Party doctrines. Copies of the Koran, the religious text of Islam, are illegal, and only versions of the text that have been approved and presumably altered by the authorities are allowed for preaching.
Many of the restrictions and abuses identified by the Association stem from a law created by the regime in 2005, called the Religious Affairs Regulations. “The regulations are the most comprehensive attempt by the Chinese government to regulate religious practice in history,” they write.
Those laws stemmed from a shift in state propaganda about the need to repress Uyghurs, which took place after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Previous to that, there were laws specifically to restrict Uyghur activities, and “Strike Hard” law enforcement campaigns were routinely launched. After Sept. 11, Uyghurs were called terrorists, and Uyghurs became part of the “three evil forces” of “separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism.”
The web of laws created by the authorities “have had the effect of criminalizing peaceful religious practices among Uyghurs on par with illicit and violent activity,” the authors say.
Before the restrictions on Uyghur religious activities were codified and parceled as a national security matter, there was a history of less regulated suppression by communist authorities.
Before being conquered by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949, the Second East Turkistan Republic, as it was called then, was a large, independent country. After the conquest, Uyghurs reported severe human rights violations, including having their territory used for open-air nuclear tests, which they claim led to widespread deaths and cancer. Uyghurs are also believed to have been a testing ground for human organ harvesting beginning in the 1990s, before the practices were applied to Falun Gong prisoners of conscience, according to the research of Ethan Gutmann.
The authors say that their report, “Sacred Right Defiled,” is “the first systematic documentation of the repression of Uyghur religion published by a human rights group since 2005.”
“China’s highly politicized criminal-legal system, as well as the state apparatus governing and monitoring religion, have ensured a strict interpretation and implementation of often vaguely worded religious regulation in East Turkestan,” the report says. “In effect, the bodies established by the Chinese state to oversee religious affairs and administration in China do little to protect religious believers, but assist the government’s repression of religious freedom by helping to formulate and promote restrictive regulations.”
For those that defy the authorities in the practice of their religion, jail awaits, the report says.