Sep 27, 2007

East Turkestan: What Goes for Tibet, Goes for East Turkestan

With the appointment of a new bishop and the controversy over government ‘approval’ of Lamas, it may be easy to forget that China’s Muslims suffer from similar restrictions.

With the appointment of a new bishop and the controversy over government ‘approval’ of future Lamas, it may be easy to forget that China’s significant Muslim population suffers from similar religious restrictions.

Below is an article published by The Human Rights Tribune:

China has a significant minority of Muslims but only those considered loyal to the state are allowed to take part in the pilgrimage to Mecca. Representatives of the Muslim Uighur people came to the Human Rights Council to criticise the restrictions on religious freedom in China.

We are all followers of Sufism,” explained Mamtimin Ala, from the World Uighur Congress, “and we practise a very moderate form of Islam, tolerant and non violent.” The Uighurs live in eastern Turkistan, along the Silk Road and their mythical cities of Kashgar and Urumgi have been known since ancient times.

In 1949 they were annexed by China, who in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, did not tolerate the practice of any religion. “Our mosques were used to raise pigs, the worst insult for Muslims,” said Mamtimin indignantly. He added that with the death of Chairman Mao, five associations representing different religions, including Islam, were created. However, they were all in Beijing and merely served the interests of the central government. “For us, it was the final poke in the eye which betrayed the true religious spirit of our people,” said Mamtmin.

Even if China and the Vatican have recently agreed to the nomination of a Catholic bishop in Beijing - after 55 years with no diplomatic relations - minority religions are still tightly controlled by the People’s Republic. The government only tolerates the practice of religion in closely monitored places of worship and it continues to choose all religious leaders.

While Bishop Joseph Li Shan has been favoured by Rome and Beijing, representatives of the Uighur people came to the Human Rights Council in Geneva to condemn the obstacles to religious freedom that continue to be imposed on them. The communist government insists on appointing Immans and chooses those who are loyal to the state for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Although it is difficult to know the exact number of Muslims in China, the figure is estimated at between 3 and 13 percent of the population which means the obstacles affect tens of thousands of people.

A friend in America

“After September 11 (2001), the government found an excellent excuse to undermine the religion of our people” continued Mamtimin lighting a cigarette in the middle of Ramadan, “and it actively fosters an unhealthy confusion between the Uighurs and the politics of Islam.”

He accepts that there is a small fundamentalist faction (in Islam), but he insists it is not representative. However Mamtimin maintains the government chooses the people it allows to go to Mecca on the basis of their political behaviour, expecting that they will spread the regime’s propaganda. It also appoints Immams who keep lists of the people who go to the mosque and monitor their religious opinions. Schools teaching the Koran have been closed and Uighur children can no longer get a religious education.

Against the backdrop of September 11 however, the Uighurs have found a surprising ally: the United States. “Western governments such as the United States and the European Union support our cause” said Mamtimin happily.

In fact, a report published recently by the American State Department criticised the Beijing government for quelling all religious demonstrations outside the well monitored places of worship. The House of Representatives asked China to stop restricting the religious freedom of the Uighur people. US Congressman Eni Faleomavaega (born in Samoa) officially expressed his concern, saying, “since September 11, Beijing has, in the name of the war on terror, brutally supressed even the most peaceful show of cultural, political and religious freedom by the Uighurs, calling them terrorists and secessionists.”

Guantanamo Uigers found innocent

Too good an opportunity for Washington to resist to criticize the communist giant and to establish support in central Asia? “The US knows us well and knows that we are not terrorists. What’s more, no Uighur has ever carried out an assassination attempt.” The proof? 17 Uighurs detained in Guantanamo were declared innocent. If they had been sent back to China they would have been persecuted and the US is in the process of finding a third country willing to welcome them. For the moment, it has not found one.

Translated from the French by Claire Doole