China’s relentless persecution of its Muslim minority

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Authoritarian regimes often persecute innocent people but cover their crime by denouncing their victims as “terrorists.” China is doing so on a massive scale as numerous reports indicate.

Gay McDougall, vice-president of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, told committee members in Geneva in August that more than one million Uighurs (Muslims) are estimated to be in detention in “counter-extremism centers” which are internment camps. Their crime is that they are Uighur and Muslim in a land of atheists and a Han ethnic majority. Another two million have been forced into “re-education” camps for indoctrination.

Uighurs, now numbering some 20 million, have lived in Xinjiang (Sinkiang, East Turkestan), for 4,000 years. They are a Turkic people steeped in Arabic, Iranian and European cultures. Now they are under pressure to denounce their religion and culture.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International agree that tens of thousands have been detained.

Reuters news agency reported that 15 Western diplomats sought answers from China on its human rights violations but Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denounced the request as “interference.”

Ethnic Uighurs have lived in Sinkiang – as the province was called – for centuries. Defeating the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong’s troops seized Xinjiang in 1949 and started forcing its mostly Muslim population to adopt Communist dogma.

Chinese officials have been stationed in Muslims’ homes to change their way of life. Children have been snatched and put in orphanages. Innocent people have been arrested and thrown into concentration camps.

Praying, fasting, teaching, reading or having the Holy Qur’an, and wearing modest clothes, are considered criminal acts. The adhan and iqamah have been replaced with praises for Communism. Uighur language has been banned at schools and work. Girls are forcibly married to Han Chinese men and their families jailed if they refuse.

Properties, bank accounts and funds have been seized from many Uighurs. A number of Uighur children have disappeared.

Sigal Samuel of The Atlantic said people placed in concentration camps were “forced to renounce Islam, criticize their own Islamic beliefs and those of fellow inmates, and recite Communist party propaganda songs for hours each day.” Inmates’ beards had been shaved off and they were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol against the tenets of their faith. Physical, emotional and psychological abuse is inflicted by the authorities to cure the Uighurs of their “mental illness” – their devotion to their faith.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is not allowed to visit the camps, which are surrounded by locked gates, razor wire and sentry towers. Chinese officials initially denied that such camps existed, but they changed their tune and now call them “vocational training schools.”

In Washington DC, a Uighur woman, Mihrigul Tursun, 29, told a newspaperman that she was subjected to physical and psychological torture, including electric shocks, while she was tied to a chair during 10 months in detention. There are reports that Uighur students who returned to China from overseas have been detained and some died in custody.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has asked China to allow monitors in Xinjiang, but Beijing fired back by saying that it is a sovereign country.

Canada and some Western countries are urging China to respect the basic rights of all of its citizens. Deputy Canadian permanent UN representative Tamara Mawhinney stated that Canada expects China to desist from “prosecution and persecution on the basis of religion or belief,” and she urged the Chinese government to “release Uighurs and other Muslims who have been detained arbitrarily and without due process for their ethnicity or religion.”

The statements were mild and were not followed up by action. The Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported that Patrick Poon, Amnesty International’s China researcher, stated that not one of the UN’s 50 Muslim-majority countries has demanded that Beijing stop its persecution of the Uighurs.

“We were hoping Muslim countries would bring more attention to the situation in Xinjiang,” Poon told the Citizen. “Most countries didn’t mention Xinjiang at all. That’s something we need to ask. Why are they so quiet about their Muslim brothers and sisters in Xinjiang?”

He speculated that this might be due to a hope for business opportunities in China, or because state-sanctioned religious persecution is a fact of life in some Muslim countries.

Canada is seeking increased trade with China and other countries to lessen its dependence on the United States. It also champions human rights all over the world, in keeping with its respect for the fundamental rights for its own citizens. However, it usually does so softly because it is a small country and pursues its policy goals largely through quiet diplomacy.

Persecution in totalitarian countries is hardly new. What is surprising, however, is that the world is mostly silent and indifferent to China’s brutalities against its own innocent people, simply because of their ethnicity and faith.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired newspaperman, refugee judge and community leader in Ottawa. He has received the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, Canada’s highest awards.


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