The Uyghur American Association (UAA) is concerned that a recent intensification of restrictions on Uyghur religious expression will bring further instability to East Turkestan. Reports of state-mandated curbs on Uyghurs to freely practice their Islamic faith during the holy month of Ramadan detail the increasing criminalization of non-state sanctioned Islam and an egregious violation by the Chinese government of the Uyghur peoples’ human right to freedom of religion under domestic and international law.
On July 23, 2012, Radio Free Asia and on August 2, 2012, the Financial Times reported the establishment by local authorities across East Turkestan of “security and stability work plans” during Ramadan, which began on July 20, 2012. Under the plans, officials are posted to mosques across the region to monitor if government employees, teachers and students are attending prayers for the duration of the holy month.
In the same Radio Free Asia article, World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilshat Raxit stated that in Aksu searches for “illegal” religious publications (referring to any non-state produced material) were underway and that government officials had ordered Uyghur restaurants to remain open during daylight hours for Ramadan. Raxit added that mosques were required to hold ideological meetings with Chinese Communist Party officials to gauge the “mood” of Uyghurs attending prayers.
Furthermore, an article from AFP dated August 1, 2012 detailed restrictions on Uyghur religious practice during Ramadan put in place by authorities at various levels of political administration. A statement on a website for a township near Kashgar read, “It is forbidden for Communist Party cadres, civil officials (including those who have retired) and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities.” Similar restrictions were posted on the Onsu County website, which ordered schools to forbid entry to the mosque by students. AFP added that the regional government website was encouraging people to bring gifts of food to officials during the month of fasting.
Writing in the Financial Times, Kathrin Hille reported that education officials in Hotan were asked to “make sure that the students eat well.” Hille added that recent restrictions “are signs of even tighter measures.” A further indication that Chinese government officials are not willing to tolerate any kind of Uyghur dissent during Ramadan is the sentencing of 20 Uyghurs on alleged charges of terrorism and separatism that was reported on August 2, 2012.
UAA President, Alim Seytoff said, “the harsh sentencing of these 20 Uyghurs, under circumstances that are far from international standards, is timed to strike fear into the hearts of the Uyghur people in East Turkestan. It is no coincidence that these sentences happened against the backdrop of increasing religious repression in the region. It is meant as a message to the Uyghur people telling them to abandon their faith or face charges of extremism, even for simple expressions of religious belief. All these measures do is further alienate Uyghurs if that is possible.”
In the past week, the U.S. State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have criticized China for its repression of Uyghur religious rights. The State Department’s 2011 Religious Freedom Report declared repression of Muslim Uyghurs was “severe” and that religious freedom in China as a whole had declined “markedly.” In a press release condemning the Ramadan restrictions dated July 25, 2012, USCIRF stated, “Religious freedom conditions in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] have declined rapidly since the ethnic violence of June 2009…Restrictions on Uighur Muslim religious activities have caused deep resentment with Beijing’s oversight of the XUAR.”
Prior to the Ramadan measures, 2012 had seen a number of instances of curbs on religious freedom. Authorities in the Gujanbagh neighborhood of Hotan announced on June 7, 2012 a plan to conduct house-to-house searches. The announcement followed a police raid of an “illegal” religious school for children in Hotan, the death of a Uyghur child in police custody for studying Islamic prayer in the city of Korla, and the sentencing of nine Uyghur men in the city of Kashgar for their involvement with “illegal religious schools” or religious instruction.
Religious Repression in East Turkestan
The Chinese government places tight constraints on freedom of religion, and the situation in East Turkestan is particularly controlled. Imams are required to attend annual political education classes to ensure that they “stand on the side of government firmly and express their viewpoints unambiguously”; only officially approved versions of the Koran and sermons are permitted, with all unapproved religious texts treated as illegal publications liable to confiscation and criminal charges against whoever was found in possession of them; any outward expression of faith in government workplaces, hospitals and some private businesses, such as men wearing beards or women wearing headscarves, is forbidden; low-income subsidies can be withheld if a pledge to not to wear veils and to not possess “illegal” religious texts is not signed; no one under the age of 18 can enter a mosque; university and school students are forbidden from praying on campus, even in their dormitories; and students are prohibited from fasting during Ramadan. In addition, Uyghurs are not permitted to undertake Hajj, unless it is with an expensive official tour, in which applicants are carefully vetted for their “obedience to the law”. In recent years, restrictions on Uyghurs’ adherence to the Islamic faith have increasingly been codified into Chinese law, criminalizing peaceful religious practices among Uyghurs on par with illicit and violent criminal activity.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed under Article 11 of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, as well as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which China is a signatory.