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China has employed a heavy-handed campaign this week to co-opt a Muslim holiday celebrated by Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, with staged displays of happy, dancing ethnic minorities and interviews to counter accusations of widespread rights abuses in the region, Uyghur exiles said.

Many of the 12 million Muslims in the XUAR this week are celebrating Eid al-Adha, also known as Qurban Eid (in Chinese, Gurban), that honors the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son. Muslims mark the period with prayers and dancing and by slaughtering goats, sheep, cows, or camels.

On Tuesday, Chinese officials organized a Qurban Eid news conference in the XUAR’s capital Urumqi featuring five Uyghurs from Urumchi (Wulumuqi) and the cities of Turpan (Tulufan), Aksu (Akesu), and Kashgar (Kashi), to talk about the Eid holidays and their purportedly happy lives.

“For us, every day of our happy life is a holiday!” said participant Ablikim Erkin from Toqsun (Tuokesun) county in Turpan prefecture, according to a report by Xinjiang Daily, an official publication of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) Xinjiang Committee.

“As Xinjiang people, we should cherish the unity of all ethnic groups just like we take care of our eyes,” said another participant, Yasinjan Elik from Aksu. “All ethnic groups should stick together like the seeds of a pomegranate.”

The pomegranate simile has been an official CCP slogan since XUAR Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August 2016.

Among a string of harsh policies attacking Uyghur rights, freedoms, culture, and religious practices, Chen set up a network of internment camps that have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities since early 2017.

China says the camps are vocational training centers meant to combat religious extremism and terrorism in the region, but reporting by RFA and other outlets has shown that inmates are subject to political indoctrination and serious human rights abuses and often drafted for forced labor when their incarceration is over.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump slapped sanctions on several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for violations in the XUAR, including Chen, marking the first time Washington sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo.

The U.S. and other democracies have said that China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Tuesday’s official holiday news conference also featured video links to live footage of Uyghurs in Aksu and Hotan (Hetian) celebrating the Eid holiday.

A separate video on a government-controlled website shows Uyghur Muslims dancing to celebrate the Qurban Eid holiday in Kashgar.

‘They’re all lies’

Qelbinur Sidik, who taught Chinese at internment camps for nearly two years, dismissed the press conference as “Chinese propaganda” aimed at trying to show that Uyghurs enjoy religious freedom.

“They’re all lies,” she said about the participants’ comments, adding that Uyghurs in the XUAR have not been able to celebrate Ramadan or Eid al-Adha since the arrival of Chen Quanguo five years ago.

“They closed down all mosques and destroyed many of them,” she told RFA. “They never allowed anybody to enter them for prayer. Whenever someone from the outside came to visit, local police changed clothes and went to the mosques as worshippers.”

Qelbinur, an ethnic Uzbek teacher from Urumqi, provided witness testimony on unsanitary conditions in the camps and evidence of rape, forced sterilization, and the forced medication of Uyghurs at the Uyghur Tribunal in London. The independent people’s tribunal is investigating whether China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in amounts to genocide.

People are seen dancing during Eid al-Adha only when outside inspectors visit the International Grand Bazaar in Urumchi, Qelbinur said.

“The male dancers are police officers, and the female ones are cadres from local residential areas,” she said. “Some even told us that they get paid 100 yuan [U.S. $15] for dancing one day at the International Grand Bazaar.”

“Now they’re saying that Uyghurs went to the mosque, held Eid prayers, and slaughtered lambs,” Qelbinur said. “These are all staged performances.”

Ilshat Hassan, China committee chairman of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, said that officials held the press conference in response to pressure on China from the international community over the Uyghur issue.

“China’s putting on the show on Qurban Eid under international pressure,” he said. “We’re in fact watching a forced theater of tragedy, but the days of China fooling the world are over.”

‘No hesitation in liquidating Uyghur culture’

On Wednesday, BuzzFeed News published a report detailing the massive volume of detention space built by China in the XUAR.

After calculating the floor areas of 347 compounds appearing to be prisons and internment camps, the report compared them to China’s own prison and detention construction standards to determine the amount of space needed for each inmate.

The report found that the compounds are spacious enough to hold more than 1 million people, or one in every 25 residents of the XUAR simultaneously — a figure that is seven times higher than the imprisonment capacity of the U.S., the country with the highest official incarceration rate in the world.

Author and columnist Gordon Chang told RFA that the report substantiates that the scale of atrocities in the XUAR is much larger than what most people thought.

“This report suggests that the number of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and others who have been detained in these facilities is far greater than previously estimated, and clearly Beijing has shown no hesitation in liquidating Uyghur culture through committing crimes against humanity in these camps,” he said.

Reported by Nuriman Abdurashid and Mihray Abral for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.