One CCP strategy to destroy Uyghur identity in Xinjiang is to identify and jail prominent figures of the Muslim religion.
by Martyna Kokotkiewicz
The aim of this article, highlighting the cases of certain individuals, in addition to being an introduction to the subject of religious persecution in Xinjiang, is to make us look more closely at the direction our quickly developing world is heading in.
The group of readers whose attention we particularly seek are those coming from places where religious freedom is considered one of the most basic human rights and where religious leaders are highly respected. While most of today’s world can decide freely whether to worship or not and, if so, whom and how to worship, in some places people are tortured and killed for studying and teaching religion, and sometimes only because they pray. Moreover, the facilities where they study and later practice their prayers with their fellow worshippers, are officially approved, legalized so to say, by the same regime that persecutes them. This is how the unimagineable becomes reality in the areas ruled by the CCP.
In mostly Catholic countries like Poland, religious figures are respected to such an extent that they are studied by some like religious scholars even if they do not have any academic experience in religion (this applies for example to some monks). Their opinions are elistened to, wherever they appear they are treated with respect, for some the way they live their lives is considered sacred. In other places, such as predominantly Muslim Morocco, there is a tradition of sharing food etc with the imams of the local mosques, recognising that they rarely have any appreciable income.
But in China, where we are witnessing nothing less than a war on religions conducted by the government, you can basically lose your life or at least spend long years in prison merely for praying in public. This applies to the whole country, but what has been recently going on in Xinjiang is not only another cruel chapter of this war, but also a surrealistic battle against common sense. State-approved institutions do indeed exist, where future religious leaders can study and then become official, CCP-approved imams.
However, in reality they are just pawn in the game China is playing with the rest of the world, probably designed to mislead the world by showing how many privileges, including religious freedom, one can enjoy in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. If this was not the case, how can you explain the fact that even so called state-approved religious leaders disappear in different detention facilities, some of them reported to have got life sentences, and others to have died in detention?
When you filter the Xinjiang Victims Database in order to obtain a document including only the profiles of imams, you will get a file consisting of almost 600 pages, but if you consider this to be a lot, bear in mind not all the cases have been reported to the Database. It would be impossible to highlight all the cases at once. However, it is worth trying to draw the world’s attention to at least some of them, in the hope that the Database’s list will cease to grow very soon.
Talking about Uyghur imams in detention, one cannot start without mentioning Abidin Ayup.
“A respected and well-known religious scholar from Atush” as stated on his Database profile, he is over ninety years old now. He was already nearly ninety when he was arrested in 2017. For the authorities there was nothing unusual in accusing this man of extremism. Neither his age, nor the fact that he was an “official” imam of “official” mosques, studying and teaching in “official” Islamic institutions. His relatives overseas have not had any news from him for years. What was most alarming was the fact that Mr. Ayup had considerable health problems and the last news his relatives managed to get reported his hospitalization. It goes without saying that one will not find any news concerning acts of extremism conducted by Abidin Ayup. It can therefore be stated that his only “crime” was to be a key person in maintaining Uyghur religious traditions, maybe with the small addition of having relatives abroad (which is pretty much enough to get detained in Xinjiang).
Sometimes, quite simply, no hope remains. It was in August 2020 when devastating news arrived about another prominent imam, Memtimin Yunus from Khotan. At that time we were informed he had died in prison earlier that year, at the age of 56. He had been in detention since 2016.
It is obvious that the CCP is targeting people exactly like him. Well-educated, respected by his community, in other words, too influential and therefore dangerous to the regime. In the case of Memtimin Yunus, unlike that of Abidin Ayup no official reason was given for his detention. This is striking because the message behind it can be interpreted as “it is enough for you to practice your religion to become our enemy. We do not have to explain our actions towards such enemies of the nation to anyone.” Whether it is more cruel than calling a ninety-year-old professor a dangerous extremist or not, the effect is the same. The oppressed nation has lost another person who could have probably brought some consolation to at least some of his people.
Turning now to Heyrullam Turghun, this is where Chinese surrealism is at its most striking. This imam from Korghas, detained as far back as 2008, is serving a life sentence for having been an illegal religious teacher. Let’s assume he indeed was not an officially approved imam and therefore had no licence to teach religion. However, what would such a licence have changed if hundreds of “legal” imams have also been suffering and dying in detention? What does it mean, according to the government, to be a “legal” religious teacher in China? If all the others who have disappeared in different detention facilities were “legal”, why were they punished as well? Some may also ask the question if being an unlicenced teacher really deserves a life sentence, but I believe this question is not applicable to the CCP’s vision of the world.
There are many other questions to be asked, and many other religious figures whose cases could be presented here. There is an informal group of activists focusing on collecting data concerning religious scholars and leaders, and hopefully more testimonies will appear. The people in question have served their communities for a long time. It is now our turn to show our respect by telling their stories to the world.