Omer Kanat’s Remarks at the Launch of “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghur Mosques and Shrines”

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Below is the transcript of UHRP Director Omer Kanat’s remarks at the launch of UHRP’s new report on the systematic destruction of mosques in East Turkestan. The event also featured remarks by the report’s main researcher and writer Bahram Sintash, NED President Carl Gershman, and commentary by Elise Anderson and RFA Uyghur Service Director Alim Seytoff.  The entire event can be viewed on the video posted below.

October 29, 2019

National Endowment for Democracy

I want to thank the National Endowment for Democracy for co-hosting this event and for supporting UHRP’s human-rights documentation work for more than a decade. We are truly grateful.

Government denial and secrecy

Our new report presents evidence of the complete or partial destruction of over 100 mosques. This is important because the government claims to be respecting freedom of worship. It strongly denies that these demolitions are taking place. Therefore, it is quite dangerous for anyone in East Turkestan to provide evidence of what is happening. Providing this kind of information will almost certainly mean you will be detained yourself. But because we have these satellite images, along with the photographs that Bahram has collated, these desecrations cannot be entirely hidden.

Barham has also gone deeper into the meaning of this destruction, by speaking with people who know or knew these mosques very well. He spoke with Alijan Hasan, a researcher in Islamic culture, who left Est Turkestan in 2016 and is now living in the Middle East. Bahram talked with him about the Keriya Mosque. It is the oldest and largest mosque in East Turkestan, and has witnessed 800 years of Uyghur history. Alijan Hasan told Bahram, quote, “I always prayed at this mosque when I visited Keriya. The last time I visited was when I attended my cousin’s wedding, and I took a picture with the groomsmen in front of the gate. For the safety of other people who are in the photo, I can’t share it.” Unquote. So this is the situation: even sharing past photographs of community experiences at these mosques may be too dangerous to the people who used to pray at them.

Imams, teachers, and civil society

It is also important to note that the imams who oversee these mosques have been targeted for severe and inhuman treatment. The goal appears to be to permanently remove religious leaders from society, and not “re-educate” them, as official propaganda suggests. Of course, all Imams were already vetted by the government. For several years before the crisis began in 2017, they were forced to give sermons that were written for them by the government, praising government policy. Still, once the crisis began, this provided no protection. They were taken away en mass. Many have been  given very long prison sentences.

One of the few camp survivors, Erbol Ergali, now in Kazakhstan,has stated that imams in detention with him were sentenced to 20 years in prison and kept constantly shackled.  Another former detainee, Amanzhan Seiituly, said that in his cell were not only Imams, but also people employed as guards and cleaners at mosques, as well as people who had registered at mosques before praying.

Many religious leaders have died in custody. On January 29, last year – in 2018 – UHRP received confirmation from relatives of Muhammad Salih Hajim that he had died in an internment camp. Muhammad Salih Hajim was a prominent Koranic scholar and Uyghur religious leader. He translated the Koran from Arabic into Uyghur at the request of the Chinese government. He was 82 years old when he was taken into custody at the end of 2017. His daughter,  Nezire Muhammad Salih, and other relatives were also taken away at the same time. This is only one of many similar cases, where the entire family of a religious leader has been taken away to the camps.

Husan Kari Hajim, the oldest Imam of the Keriya mosque, went missing in 2017 and there is no news of him. Imin Damollam received a life sentence in 2017. He was a graduate from the first cohort of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute and was assigned to the Keriya mosque as Imam by the government in 1992.

Abdulnehed Mehsum is another noted religious scholar who died in custody. He died while being held in an internment camp in Hotan prefecture in November 2017, although his death was not reported until May 2018.

Abdurashid Salih is another religious scholar who died in June 2018 in Ghulja.  He was our neighbor in East Turkestan, in Nilka County, and I spent several days with him when he visited Istanbul in 1996. His body was given to his family in June 2018, his head was covered with a white sheet, and a blood stain was visible from a distance.  His family members were not allowed to take part in his burial and were not allowed to touch the body.

The targeting of civil society should also be noted. This started early. The case of Abliz Haji is a prime example. Abliz Haji was one of many faithful Uyghur Muslims who worked to rebuild neighborhood and village mosques. He managed the voluntary contributions for the construction of a mosque near Hotan. He was arrested in 2015. He was tortured to force him to hand over the names of people who made donations. He refused to cooperate, and was handed a 10-year prison sentence.

The implications

The widespread destruction of mosques, shrines and cemeteries – and the systematic elimination of religious scholars and teachers from society – make one thing very clear. There can be no doubt about the Chinese government’s goals regarding the future of the Uyghur people. This is a step-by-step campaign to erase Uyghur sacred places and Uyghur religious practice from the face of the earth. It is a clear indicator of genocidal intent.

I can say more about specific policy recommendations in the discussion. For now, I will note that UHRP is again calling on UNESCO and concerned governments to take urgent action to stop this systematic destruction of a people and their faith.