Authorities have detained some two-thirds of religious leaders in the home township of man claiming to be an imam in a propaganda video condemning the U.S. for designating abuses in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) as genocide, according to officials.
On Jan. 19—his last full day as top U.S. diplomat—former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Chinese policies in the XUAR aim for “the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group” as he announced a designation that Uyghur exile groups have advocated since the revelation in 2017 of mass internment camps that have held as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
Pompeo said he had determined China is “committing genocide and crimes against humanity” in the XUAR against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, and that Beijing and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “must be held to account.”
The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has endorsed the designation, suggesting that President Joe Biden’s administration will pursue a more forceful approach in holding China accountable for its abuses in the region.
Emily Horne, the spokesperson for Biden’s National Security Council, told the Washington Examiner last week that “President Biden has called the oppression of the Uyghurs a genocide, and he stands against it in the strongest possible terms.”
Chinese officials have said the camps are voluntary centers for “vocational training” that protect the region against “religious extremism” and “terrorism,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
On Jan. 20, the first day of the Biden administration, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying slammed Pompeo’s “venomous lies” and called the determination “nothing more than a piece of wastepaper.”
Since then, multiple videos have been published online featuring Uyghurs using the Uyghur language and Mandarin Chinese to discuss how the CCP had improved their lives in the region, praising the government and refuting Pompeo’s designation.
Claims of religious freedom
In one such video, a man named Habibulla Abdurehim identifies himself as an imam of a mosque in the seat of Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture—an oasis town of around 330,000 people that served as a key station along the Silk Road in the Tarim Basin.
Abdurehim dismisses Pompeo’s statement as slander while praising the state of religious affairs in the XUAR—claiming there is widespread and just policy in Hotan and noting that the government had recently renovated the mosque where he says he works.
His statement contradicts reports by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets that indicate religious officials have been detained and locked away en masse. Other reports describe the wholesale demolition of religious sites in the XUAR, including one by RFA which found that 80 percent of mosques in Toqquzaq township, in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Kona Sheher (Shufu) county, were destroyed in 2016 alone.
Following the publishing of the video, a member of the Uyghur diaspora contacted RFA claiming to know Abdurehim and insiting that he is not a religious figure. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said Abdurehim was formerly the party secretary of Yawa township, in Hotan prefecture’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county, and that “nearly all of the religious figures” in the township are currently in “some form of detention.”
In his role as township secretary, which coincided with the beginning of the internment campaign, Abdurehim personally delivered four religious leaders to a police station, where they were presumably questioned, if not detained, the source said.
RFA contacted the police department in Yawa to confirm the details of the source’s information. An officer who answered the phone said he was unsure whether Abdurehim was a religious figure or formerly the secretary of the township and referred further questions about his role to higher level authorities.
However, when asked how many religious leaders from Yawa are in prison, the officer replied, “most of them.”
“Given what I know, I think it’s around 60 or 70 percent,” he said.
According to the officer, there are between 70 and 80 religious figures in Yawa township, which is comprised of 21 villages.
The officer said that 50 to 60 of them are in prison alone, while others are being held in internment camps.
RFA also spoke with a security official in Yawa who said that one of the religious figures, or “akhun,” Abdurehim had brought to the attention of authorities was a 30-year-old father of two named Habibulla Mijit.
“That young man is also gone now,” the official said, adding that Mijit had been handed “a seven-year punishment.”
Restrictions on faith
In recent years authorities in the XUAR have been targeting prominent Uyghur religious scholars and intellectuals for internment in what observers say is part of a bid to undermine the cultural traditions of the ethnic group.
Investigations by RFA have shown that religiously inflected practices, including wearing beards and various styles of dress—such as long tunics for women—have been heavily restricted over the past several years.
In 2015 and 2016, regional authorities even restricted the giving of zakat, or alms—the act of which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam. Restrictions on almsgiving have effectively prevented Uyghurs from being able to provide financial and social support to one another.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.