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China’s crackdown on religious freedoms intensifies during Ramadan

As 1.5 billion Muslims in the world start observing Ramadan, authorities in China have launched a further crackdown on religious practices of the Uyghur people. According to an Amnesty International report of 3 May, open displays of religion or any religious symbols such as wearing a headscarf, prayer, fasting or avoiding alcohol or pork are now considered as a ‘sign of extremism’ by the Chinese authorities. Being found carrying out any one of these acts is punishable by detention in one of the internment camps. The UN estimates that there are already one million Uyghur people languishing in “re-education” or “transformation-through-education” centres.

Persecution of religious freedoms

The assault on religious freedoms in China has been ongoing primarily because authorities view organised religion as a threat to party loyalty. However, recent clampdowns have seen Chinese authorities push human rights violations to new heights. This week the United States Commission on Religious Freedom named China as one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom.

The persecution of religious minorities has led to the report classifying China as a “Tier 1” – a country that has taken extreme measures to regulate and oppress religious freedoms.

Oppression of the Uyghur people

Chinese authorities have persecuted not only the Muslim Uyghurs, but also Christians and other religious minorities in China, but Muslim minorities have sustained particularly harsh measures and crackdowns through increased surveillance, destruction of religious sites, arbitrary detention and forced assimilation.

According to a 7 May Guardian investigation, a number of Muslim religious sites have been destroyed in the northwest of China. Sources at the Guardian and open-source website Bellingcat used satellite imagery examined 91 different religious sites in the region. Their research revealed that 31 mosques and two major shrines had suffered damage, almost half of the 33 Islamic sites were “completely or almost completely razed”, while others had distinguishing features, such as domes and minarets, removed.

Human rights campaigners worldwide have also reported on China’s increased surveillance of the Uyghur Muslim residents of the Xinjiang province. Human Rights Watch released a report last week revealing how it reverse engineered an app used by the Chinese government for surveillance. The app connects to China’s social credit surveillance system and allowed authorities to collect vast amounts of information on Xinjiang residents including their blood type, height, religious “atmosphere” and their political affiliations.

Another inhumane method applied is the monitoring of families through ‘home stays’ in which,

“families are required to provide officials with information about their lives and political views and are subjected to political indoctrination”.

Aileen, 37, a Hui Muslim from the north-western Gansu province, told ABC news that officials search homes for evidence of religious practice in homes,

“Most people don’t keep Korans in their houses anymore,” she said.

Aziz Isa, Secretary of PEN Uyghur Centre and member of the Uyghur community in London has been campaigning against the injustice towards the Uyghur people. Speaking on the continued persecution of Muslims in China he told the International Observatory of Human Rights,

“For many years now the Chinese government has become obsessive about Uyghurs’ Islamic believe. Because the regime know that Uyghurs Islamic belief makes the Uyghurs different from majority of (Han) Chinese. But China must understand that Uyghurs’ belief in Islam existed 1000 years before they established the Chinese Communist Party, which they portray as a God of China. This is one of the Chinese government’s methods to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs as Han Chinese in order to consolidate Uyghurs’s homeland East Turkistan which they occupied in 1949.”

“As a Uyghur, I would like to tell China: possibly you can change someone’s life style by forcing them but you cannot change someone’s heart of mind. So I call on you to stop persecuting the Uyghurs!”

International Response

At the U.N Human Rights Council annual session in March 2019, Western countries looked to members of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) to spotlight the internment camps. The UK was the only European nation to speak out against the persecution of the Uyghur people at the session. Lord Ahmad, minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said:

“We are deeply concerned about the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang”.

The US has accused China of operating concentration camps. US Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver said at a press briefing on 3 May,

“The Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,”

Beijing has responded by denying the claims and China’s foreign ministry continued to insist that freedom of religion is still a pillar of the country’s society. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang was quoted as saying,

“China practices freedom of religion and firmly opposes and combats religious extremist thought,”.

“There are more than 20 million Muslims and more than 35,000 mosques in China. The vast majority of believers can freely engage in religious activities according to the law.”

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