As Muslims worldwide began a month of abstaining from food or drink from dawn until sunset for Ramadan Monday, Uyghurs chafed under tough Chinese controls over observations of the annual Muslim holy month in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Activists and U.S. politicians meanwhile called for greater world attention to and condemnation of China’s network of political “re-education camps” that have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017 as reported by Radio Free Asia.
Authorities in Xinjiang have typically forced restaurants to stay open and restricted access to mosques during Ramadan to discourage traditional observation of the holy month, and in recent years authorities’ have tried to ban fasting among Uyghurs, drawing widespread criticism from rights groups.
“The entire Muslim world has started fasting and praying. But unfortunately the Uyghur Muslims under China’s draconian rule can neither fast nor pray during this Ramadan,” said Ilshat Hassan, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association.
“It is not just Uyghurs’ Islamic faith that is under Chinese attack but also their very existence as a unique indigenous people,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“The international community needs to take action for China locking up millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps. And the Muslim world, especially OIC, should hold China accountable for its anti-Islamic policy and crimes against humanity,” added Hassan.
“While the Muslims around the world are enjoying their religious freedom and peacefully celebrating Ramadan, the Uyghur Muslims of East Turkestan have been denied by China their legitimate right to celebrate, pray and fast,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
“This is the third consecutive year that Uyghur people, who accepted Islam as a state religion more than a thousand year ago, have not been able to celebrate Ramadan because of Chinese government’s anti-Islamic and anti-Uyghur policies,” he said, and echoed Hassan’s calls for international pressure on China to ease its policies.
In response to reports on the fasting ban, the deputy chief of mission in the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, Zhao Lijian, tweeted that “Muslims are free to fast in Xinjiang.”
“Restrictions are with Communist Party members, who are atheists; government officials, who shall discharge their duties; students who are with compulsory education & hard learning tasks,” the diplomat wrote.
Criticism of tightening controls on Ramadan activities came as China bristled at the use of the term “concentration camps” by a senior Pentagon official in a news conference on May 3 in Washington.
“Our concerns are significant when it comes to the ongoing repression in China,” said Randall Schriver, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs.
“The Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,” said.
Challenged by a reporter on the use of a word that calls to mind Nazi Germany’s mass internment of Jews in the 1930s, Schriver defended the term as “appropriate.”
“Given what we understand to be the magnitude of the detention, at least a million but likely closer to 3 million citizens out of a population of about 10 million, so a very significant portion of the population, what’s happening there, what the goals are of the Chinese government and their own public comments make that a very, I think, appropriate description,” he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular press briefing in Beijing on Monday that Schriver’s comments were “totally inconsistent with the facts.”
“The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition,” he said. “We also once again urge the relevant parties in the U.S. to… stop interfering with China’s internal affairs through the Xinjiang issue.”
“At present, Xinjiang is politically stable, its economy is developing, and the society there is harmonious,” added Geng. “The people live and work in peace.”
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, China has tried to change the discussion, describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
China has also fought to muffle criticism of its policies at international gathering, including a recent incident at the UN Human Rights Council, where Chinese diplomats tried to stop activist Hillel Neuer from raising the Xinjiang camps.
“When I spoke out @UN_HRC for 1 million Muslim Uighurs being detained by China, they freaked out and tried to stop me. They failed,” tweeted Neuer, executive director of UN Watch.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, earlier this month said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, said in March that people “haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s” and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs “one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today.”
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are “at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million” Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, in a speech last week, indicated there is little acceptance in Washington for China’s explanation for the camps.
“China has concentrated over one million Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minorities in what they call ‘vocational schools’ or ‘reeducation camps, but what we would recognize as prison camps,” said Rubio, co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“What Xi Jinping calls the ‘Chinese Dream,’ has for millions of people, become a brutal and unending nightmare,” he said, referring to China’s president and his signature slogan.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service.. Written in English by Paul Eckert.