Sep 21, 2006

East Turkestan: Pilgrims Denied Saudi Visas in Pakistan

According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, thousands Uyghurs in Pakistan have been refused Saudi visas to travel to Arabia to participate in a religious pilgrimage.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has learned that several thousand Uyghurs in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, have been refused visas to travel to Saudi Arabia to participate in a religious pilgrimage, apparently as a result of interference from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. According to some estimates, as many as 6000 Uyghurs in Rawalpindi are awaiting visas.
The vast majority of the pilgrims, who are all hoping to carry out the Umrah Hajj and have traveled to Pakistan on Chinese passports, were told to return to East Turkistan – also known as Xinjiang – by the Chinese ambassador, and threatened with various punishments if they do not do so immediately.
“We request the Saudi Arabian embassy in Pakistan issue visas to these Uyghur Muslims whose lifetime wish is to make the hajj in Mecca,” said Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, president of Uyghur American Association. “The Chinese government should allow these Uyghur Muslims to perform their Islamic pilgrimage, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.”
According to UHRP’s sources, a dozen or so Uyghurs were invited into the Chinese embassy in Islamabad on the morning of September 13 by the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Zhang Chunxiang. The ambassador and his staff, some of whom had apparently traveled to Islamabad specifically because of the situation in Rawalpindi, told the Uyghur representatives that people who did not immediately return to East Turkistan would be suspended from their government posts, that any retirees would lose their pensions, and that people who were neither government employees or retirees could expect punishments to be leveled against members of their families.
Ambassador Zhang told the Uyghur representatives called to the embassy that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has brokered an agreement with the Saudi government not to issue visas to PRC passport-holders in a third country.
By yesterday afternoon, police were telling Uyghurs at guest houses in Rawalpindi that police were under orders to try and stop Uyghurs from going to nearby Islamabad in case they stage protests outside the Saudi or Chinese embassies.
According to UHRP’s sources, Uyghurs have been waiting in Rawalpindi for more than two months to receive visas for Saudi Arabia ever since the Saudi authorities stopped issuing visas through approved travel agencies in late July 2006.
However, in late August, Uyghurs protested outside the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad asking to speak to the ambassador about the refusal to issue visas. A source reports that a senior Saudi embassy official emerged from the embassy and explained that it was not Saudi policy to deny visas to Muslims hoping to go on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia; rather, the Saudi government was abiding by a request from the Chinese government not to issue visas to Uyghurs. This conversation between the Saudi official and the Uyghur demonstrators could not be confirmed.
In previous years, Uyghurs with PRC passports have traveled with relative ease to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan, preferring to travel overland as far as possible to reduce the cost of pilgrimages. The Chinese government’s insistence that Uyghurs apply for and acquire their Saudi visas only in the PRC could be a way to control the number of Uyghurs undertaking pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, or it could be a measure to more effectively monitor who is going on pilgrimage. It is not known if the same restrictions apply to other Muslims from the PRC, such as the Hui people.
Religious practices in East Turkistan are tightly controlled and monitored by the Chinese authorities. Under a gamut of highly restrictive measures which have resulted in religious texts being burned, homes being raided to ‘catch’ people observing Ramadan, and even forbidding state workers from wearing beards or head-scarves, many Uyghurs are compelled to leave East Turkistan to pursue their faith.