Religious Repression of Uyghurs in East Turkestan

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March 19, 2013

Henryk Szadziewski, Senior Researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project

Restrictions placed on religion in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have rightly been well documented among groups such as Chinese Christians and Tibetan Buddhists. The contravention of its own and international laws places China as one of the most egregious violators of the right to religious freedom. Despite a lack of international and domestic sympathy for their plight, the situation among China’s 23 million Muslims, especially the Uyghur people, is no different than other faiths in the country.

Uyghurs are a Turkic people who live in the northwest of China in a vast region that has international borders with the Central Asian states, South Asia, Mongolia and Russia. The area is widely known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, although many Uyghurs prefer the name of East Turkestan for their homeland. The autonomy granted by the Chinese state is in name only and political, economic, social and cultural life is tightly governed and monitored by the Chinese Communist Party.

The region contains large reserves of oil and natural gas and serves as a conduit for natural resources brought from Central Asia. In the over 60 years of Chinese Communist Party administration, the region has witnessed a dramatic demographic shift that has seen the proportion of Uyghurs in East Turkestan drop from 75% to 45%.

Uyghurs practice a moderate form of Islam and many perceive their faith as a statement of their cultural identity, as well as an assertion of their difference from the Han Chinese. Much like Tibetans, Uyghurs have struggled for cultural survival in the face of a government attempt to shape the distinct characteristics of their ethnicity into a broader PRC-identity. Assimilative policies, such as limiting the use of Uyghur in the education system, are complemented by zero tolerance towards Uyghur dissent against such measures.

Restrictions on the freedom of the Uyghur people to freely practice their faith in the People’s Republic of China have been increasingly codified into Chinese law in recent years, criminalizing peaceful religious practices among Uyghurs on par with illicit and violent criminal activity. Rather than simply forbid religious practices, Chinese local and central authorities have implemented policies that have progressively narrowed the definition of lawful activity. As a result, many Uyghurs find that traditional religious customs are not permitted. Regulations have also made it more difficult for non state-approved religious bodies to exist, and solidified oversight of the personnel, finances, and activities of every approved religious body or site.The Chinese state has justified many of its restrictions through claims that it faces an organized threat to security in the form of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.” The Chinese government has yet to put to rest reasonable doubt over these claims.

The tight constraints placed on religious practice are widespread.

  • Religious leaders, such as imams, are required to attend political education classes to ensure compliance with Chinese Communist Party regulations and policies.
  • Only state approved versions of the Koran and sermons are permitted, with all unapproved religious texts treated as illegal publications liable to confiscation and criminal charges against whoever was found in possession of them
  • Any outward expression of faith in government workplaces, hospitals and some private businesses, such as men wearing beards or women wearing headscarves, is forbidden.
  • Low-income subsidies can be withheld unless a pledge to not to wear veils and to not possess “illegal” religious texts is signed; no state employees and no one under the age of 18 can enter a mosque, the second a measure not in force in the rest of China.
  • Organized private religious education is proscribed and facilitators of private classes in Islam are frequently charged with conducting “illegal” religious activities.
  • Students, teachers and government workers are prohibited from fasting during Ramadan. In addition, Uyghurs are not permitted to undertake Hajj, unless it is with an expensive official tour, in which state officials carefully vet applicants.

Universal religious freedom is protected under Article 18 of the normative human rights standards outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other international instruments whose standards China is obliged to meet also ensure the right of religious freedom, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially Article 30. China’s domestic laws, such as the Constitution (Article 36) and the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (Article 11), have strong provisions on freedom of religious belief.

Despite this legal framework, the fact of repression of religious rights among Uyghurs continues to indicate rule of law standards that are far short of acceptable and a lack of appropriate pressure from the international community. Without support and adequate protections against Chinese state repression, the opportunities for Uyghurs to advocate for change and equality will remain sidelined in the rush to create modern China.