BRIEFING: UHRP Testimony before the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus

The Human Rights of Muslim Uyghurs: An Urgent Appeal

Omer Kanat, Director

Uyghur Human Rights Project

International Religious Freedom Caucus

International Religious Freedom Roundtable

Congressional Staff Briefing on Religious Freedom on China

October 11, 2018

Washington, DC

The Uyghur Human Rights Project stands in solidarity with all our Tibetan, Christian, and Falun Gong friends, in support of religious freedom for all.

We are grateful to House Asia Subcommittee Chairman Ted Yoho for convening a hearing on the Uyghur repression on September 26. As he said in his opening remarks, Chinese “authorities have turned the region into a high-tech militarized police state ... and are transparently seeking to destroy normal Islamic religious practices, and the Uyghur culture and language. Chillingly, the Party says that their objective is ‘ethnic harmony.’”

Ranking Member Brad Sherman also expressed his concern and “outrage” about the mass-internment campaign. German scholar Adrian Zenz, in his testimony at the hearing, called the campaign “a monstrous crime against humanity on a scale and level of sophistication that has only rarely been witnessed in modern history.”

In spite of worldwide condemnation in the media and by the Congress, the crackdown on the Uyghur people in East Turkestan is actually getting worse as time goes on. More and more Uyghurs are being put into mass-detention camps, and almost nobody is being released. This has been happening for nearly two years.

This week we have confirmed extremely alarming reports that authorities are now transporting huge numbers of detainees within East Turkestan and also to inland China, especially Heilongjiang. The transfers are reported to possibly involve 200,000 people. The detainees are being taken in buses and trains with blackened windows. It is alarming because it adds an additional layer of secrecy, shrouding who is in the camps and where they are. It is well known that horrific human rights abuses are most likely to take place under conditions of secret detention, where detainees have no access to family members, lawyers, or the judiciary.

The scale of the crackdown is shocking. More than one million people have been detained, out of a population of around 12 million Turkic Muslims in East Turkestan. Another 2-3 million people are forced to attend all-day “political indoctrination” classes. They have to listen to lectures on loving the Party and the motherland, study Chinese, and recite lessons on “ethnic harmony.”

The crackdown on Islamic believers includes:

- The destruction and closing of thousands of mosques and removal of the crescent moon and star from all mosques in East Turkestan.

- Banning Islamic clothing, symbols, and books. Banning beards, praying, keeping Halal, fasting during Ramadan, and reading the Qur’an. The government says these are all signs of "extremism" and detains everyone accused of these signs of religious practice. People have even been detained for saying “Assalaam Alaykum,” which is a normal Uyghur greeting meaning “Peace be unto you.” The government has also banned baby names that are “too Islamic.”

- The government requires all wedding ceremonies to take place in government offices, making them purely secular and removing the religious meaning from marriage. At least one local government official was punished for having a traditional religious wedding ceremony in her home.

- The government has been limiting funerals and gradually forbidding burial of the dead, an important part of religious practice, and instead requiring cremation.

- Religious scholars and imams were some of the first people to be rounded up into the camps, including some who were in their 70s and 80s.

On behalf of all Uyghur-Americans, I appeal to each Congressional office to press for information about the relatives of American citizens in your district who have disappeared into the camps in China. My organization has received detailed information from dozens of Uyghur families in the U.S., who reported hundreds of relatives disappeared, sentenced, or in internment camps.

This represents just a small proportion of the Uyghurs who are U.S. citizens. Many are still too afraid to come forward, because of Chinese government threats of retaliation against even more family members.

Their fears are justified. Tahir Hamut and his wife Marhaba fled from East Turkestan to the U.S. last summer. In December 2017, they decided to speak on the record with the Wall Street Journal about the repression they witnessed, and the disappearance of Marhaba’s two brothers in November. Soon after the article was published, they received word that Tahir’s younger brother had disappeared.

Tahir told a reporter last month, “Morally, we felt awful, guilty, and burdened. But other Uyghurs, even without relatives in the U.S., are getting arrested all the time. So in the end, my wife and I decided that we had to continue to speak up, and that we would pass all our relatives in Xinjiang into the hands of God.”

The repression of Uyghurs should be of great concern to the U.S. Congress and Administration. Not only is religious freedom a core American value, but also the long arm of China’s religious repression is reaching even onto American soil.

We are grateful to the 29 Members of Congress who have signed bi-partisan letters urging the application of Global Magnitsky sanctions on Chinese government officials responsible for the unprecedented repression of the Uyghurs, and urging the Administration to press for the release of the relatives of Uyghur-Americans.

We ask more Members of Congress to write follow-up letters to press again for sanctions. It has been almost six months since the State Department first said it was considering Global Magnitsky sanctions. If U.S. government does not take action, we are concerned that the Chinese government takes it as a green light for its repression.

We ask Members of Congress to press for sanctions to be applied under the International Religious Freedom Act, which was passed exactly 20 years ago.

We also ask Members of Congress to pass a resolution condemning the repression. On October 4, the European Parliament adopted an Urgency Resolution on Arbitrary Detentions in Xinjiang. If the U.S. Congress can to do the same, it will send a powerful united message.

We urge the U.S. to take a leadership role in coordinating a statement among like-minded countries. The August meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva was the first time that the Chinese government was called directly to account by the international community for these massive crimes against Uyghurs. China’s UPR review is on November 6. Some Foreign Ministries have more or less openly said that they cannot confront China on their own. Clearly, strong U.S. leadership is required.

In fact, we believe that the two-year-long Uyghur crackdown is a matter for the UN Security Council, given that experts now consider the situation to be cultural genocide, ethnic cleansing, and a crime against humanity.  

My organization’s chairman, Nury Turkel, has submitted 18 additional other policy responses in his testimony at the House hearing two weeks ago. We have copies here, and will be happy to provide them to you after today’s briefing.

I want to end by stressing that the future could be much worse. As Professor Rian Thum said in his Congressional testimony in July, “mass murder and genocide do not look like impossible outcomes.”

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