China’s portrayal of residents of its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) enjoying religious freedom with public celebrations of the end of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan marks an effort to whitewash its harsh rights record in the region, the head of a Uyghur advocacy group said Thursday.
A report by China’s official Global Times on Thursday said that Muslims throughout the country celebrated Eid al-Fitr, contradicting claims by Western governments and media outlets of state-backed human rights violations within their communities.
The report noted that Muslim residents of the XUAR enjoyed the Eid holiday by gathering with friends and family, eating traditional foods to break the Ramadan month of fasting and visiting deceased loved ones.
“Many people in Xinjiang posted their celebrations of dancing and enjoying large meals with families online. And some tourists in Xinjiang also shared these joyful moments through videos and pictures,” the Global Times said.
The report came amid growing world concern for an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities believed to have been held in a vast network of internment camps in the region since 2017—many of them punished for perceived “religious extremism” displayed in simple practices like prayer.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities. Former detainees have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.
Amid increasing scrutiny of China’s policies in the XUAR, the U.S. government in January designated abuses in the region part of a campaign of genocide—a label that was similarly applied by the parliaments of Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K.
‘Deception, fabrication and disinformation’
Speaking to RFA on Thursday, Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) rights group, condemned Beijing’s campaign to undermine criticism of its repressive policies in the XUAR through “deception, fabrication and disinformation.”
“One shining example is that on the first day of Eid, China forced Uyghurs to go to mosques to attend a Chinese flag-raising ceremony, sing the Chinese national anthem, and then pray and dance in order to create a facade that suggests Uyghurs enjoy religious freedom,” he said.
“Until China officially closes the concentration camps, releases the Uyghur detainees, apologizes for its policy of genocide, pays reparations to the Uyghurs and other indigenous Turkic peoples, and allows an unfettered international investigation [of the situation in the XUAR], no one will accept its staged performances of Uyghur happiness and freedom.”
Isa urged the global community to dismiss China’s propaganda campaign and lend its support to Uyghurs living under Beijing’s rule.
The rights campaigner’s comments follow reports last month that restrictions on fasting during Ramadan have eased in the XUAR in recent years, but residents continue to refrain from doing so, suggesting a lingering fear of being branded an “extremist” and marked for detention.
For years, Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the XUAR have been prohibited from fully observing Ramadan due to religious persecution and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government, which has in many cases banned civil servants, students and teachers from fasting during the holy month.
Sources told RFA in April that restrictions on Ramadan were the toughest for the three consecutive years beginning in 2017, prior to which the influence of “religious extremists” had been so widespread that restaurants throughout his county were completely closed during the holy month, and “nearly 100 percent of people were fasting,” posing “a major threat to national security.”
But despite claims that restrictions had eased beginning in 2020, the sources said that they had yet to see anyone fasting in the region since then, suggesting that Uyghurs continue to live in an environment of fear.
Isa’s comments also came as the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) advocacy group published a report which said that religious leaders in the XUAR have long been frequent targets of state-directed abuse.
Based on a dataset consisting of more than 1,000 cases of Turkic imams and other religious figures from the XUAR detained for their religious teaching and community leadership since 2014, the report found that the government has targeted mostly male Uyghur religious figures born between 1960 and 1980. A sizeable minority of Kazakh Islamic clergy of roughly the same demographic group have also been detained, as well as several Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tatar figures, the report said.
Of those cases, UHRP found that more than 40 percent had involved prison sentences, versus shorter-term camp detentions, which it said, “illustrates the intention of the Chinese government not just to criminalize religious expression or practice, but also to consider imams criminals by virtue of their profession."
“Grounds for imprisonment in the cases we reviewed include ‘illegal’ religious teaching (often to children), prayer outside a state-approved mosque, the possession of ‘illegal’ religious materials, communication or travel abroad, separatism or extremism, and officiating or preaching at weddings and funerals, as well as other charges that simply target religious affiliation,” the report said.
UHRP also documented cases in which detainees had once been formally sanctioned by the government to serve as imams, suggesting that their “criminality” was a result of a policy reversal.
The group highlighted what it called a “major spike” in the sentencing of religious figures in 2017, when the internment campaign began in the region.
UHRP said it interviewed several imams and other religious leaders now living outside of China who reported regular monitoring and direction from Chinese authorities to the point that they felt they no longer played a positive role in their work, prior to fleeing the region.
“This report makes clear that imams and other religious figures, similar to members of the intellectual class in Uyghur society, stand at the very center of what one might describe as concentric circles of repression,” the report said.
“Whereas all Turkic peoples in [the XUAR] have faced strict government controls in recent years, and whereas increasingly capricious government authorities are now willing to detain just about anyone, religious figures were targeted early and severely.”
UHRP said that by targeting influential and knowledgeable Uyghur and other Turkic religious figures, Beijing hopes to “halt the intergenerational transmission of religious knowledge” in the XUAR and is “extinguishing free religious practice in a single generation.”
Taken together with policies that reduce legal religious practice to only individuals over the age of 18 within the confines of state-sanctioned mosques led by state-sanctioned imams, and later led to the destruction of many of those state-sanctioned mosques, UHRP said that China’s targeting of religious figures in the XUAR will “make it difficult—if not impossible—for Uyghurs to maintain any semblance of religious expression in the years to come.”
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.