Omer Kanat’s Remarks at the Launch of “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghur Mosques and Shrines”

Below is the transcript of UHRP Director Omer Kanat’s remarks at the launch of UHRP’s new report on the systematic destruction of mosques in East Turkestan.  The event also featured remarks by the report’s main researcher and writer Bahram Sintash, NED President Carl Gershman, and commentary by Elise Anderson and RFA Uyghur Service Director Alim Seytoff.  The entire event can be viewed on the video posted below.

October 29, 2019

National Endowment for Democracy

I want to thank the National Endowment for Democracy for co-hosting this event and for supporting UHRP’s human-rights documentation work for more than a decade. We are truly grateful.

Government denial and secrecy

Our new report presents evidence of the complete or partial destruction of over 100 mosques. This is important because the government claims to be respecting freedom of worship. It strongly denies that these demolitions are taking place. Therefore, it is quite dangerous for anyone in East Turkestan to provide evidence of what is happening. Providing this kind of information will almost certainly mean you will be detained yourself. But because we have these satellite images, along with the photographs that Bahram has collated, these desecrations cannot be entirely hidden.

Barham has also gone deeper into the meaning of this destruction, by speaking with people who know or knew these mosques very well. He spoke with Alijan Hasan, a researcher in Islamic culture, who left Est Turkestan in 2016 and is now living in the Middle East. Bahram talked with him about the Keriya Mosque. It is the oldest and largest mosque in East Turkestan, and has witnessed 800 years of Uyghur history. Alijan Hasan told Bahram, quote, “I always prayed at this mosque when I visited Keriya. The last time I visited was when I attended my cousin’s wedding, and I took a picture with the groomsmen in front of the gate. For the safety of other people who are in the photo, I can’t share it.” Unquote. So this is the situation: even sharing past photographs of community experiences at these mosques may be too dangerous to the people who used to pray at them.

Imams, teachers, and civil society

It is also important to note that the imams who oversee these mosques have been targeted for severe and inhuman treatment. The goal appears to be to permanently remove religious leaders from society, and not “re-educate” them, as official propaganda suggests. Of course, all Imams were already vetted by the government. For several years before the crisis began in 2017, they were forced to give sermons that were written for them by the government, praising government policy. Still, once the crisis began, this provided no protection. They were taken away en mass. Many have been  given very long prison sentences.

One of the few camp survivors, Erbol Ergali, now in Kazakhstan,has stated that imams in detention with him were sentenced to 20 years in prison and kept constantly shackled.  Another former detainee, Amanzhan Seiituly, said that in his cell were not only Imams, but also people employed as guards and cleaners at mosques, as well as people who had registered at mosques before praying.

Many religious leaders have died in custody. On January 29, last year – in 2018 — UHRP received confirmation from relatives of Muhammad Salih Hajim that he had died in an internment camp. Muhammad Salih Hajim was a prominent Koranic scholar and Uyghur religious leader. He translated the Koran from Arabic into Uyghur at the request of the Chinese government. He was 82 years old when he was taken into custody at the end of 2017. His daughter,  Nezire Muhammad Salih, and other relatives were also taken away at the same time. This is only one of many similar cases, where the entire family of a religious leader has been taken away to the camps.

Husan Kari Hajim, the oldest Imam of the Keriya mosque, went missing in 2017 and there is no news of him. Imin Damollam received a life sentence in 2017. He was a graduate from the first cohort of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute and was assigned to the Keriya mosque as Imam by the government in 1992.

Abdulnehed Mehsum is another noted religious scholar who died in custody. He died while being held in an internment camp in Hotan prefecture in November 2017, although his death was not reported until May 2018.

Abdurashid Salih is another religious scholar who died in June 2018 in Ghulja.  He was our neighbor in East Turkestan, in Nilka County, and I spent several days with him when he visited Istanbul in 1996. His body was given to his family in June 2018, his head was covered with a white sheet, and a blood stain was visible from a distance.  His family members were not allowed to take part in his burial and were not allowed to touch the body.

The targeting of civil society should also be noted. This started early. The case of Abliz Haji is a prime example. Abliz Haji was one of many faithful Uyghur Muslims who worked to rebuild neighborhood and village mosques. He managed the voluntary contributions for the construction of a mosque near Hotan. He was arrested in 2015. He was tortured to force him to hand over the names of people who made donations. He refused to cooperate, and was handed a 10-year prison sentence.

The implications

The widespread destruction of mosques, shrines and cemeteries – and the systematic elimination of religious scholars and teachers from society – make one thing very clear. There can be no doubt about the Chinese government’s goals regarding the future of the Uyghur people. This is a step-by-step campaign to erase Uyghur sacred places and Uyghur religious practice from the face of the earth. It is a clear indicator of genocidal intent.

I can say more about specific policy recommendations in the discussion. For now, I will note that UHRP is again calling on UNESCO and concerned governments to take urgent action to stop this systematic destruction of a people and their faith.

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A Turning Point of History

A speech delivered by Zubayra Shamseden of UHRP at the 2019 annual ‘Keep Taiwan Free’ event in New York on September 7, 2019

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Dear Jenny and other organizers of this great event.

I am honored to be here today to join you and support you to ‘Keep Taiwan Free’ from the Chinese Communist government’s totalitarian regime.

Taiwan is currently a free and democratic state. It is a beacon of hope for those inside mainland China under the dictatorial regime of Xi Jinping. It is a society where freedom of expression without persecution, detention, torture, and disappearance is possible. It is a version of what China can be, where corrupt state officials, government-backed elites, and selected “patriotic” people can be tried through its political system, where its citizens can live without fear of the government demolishing their homes or disappearing them into black jails for speaking about their rights as citizens. It is a place where people can practice their faiths and beliefs without kowtowing to Xi Jinping and the CCP.

Hong Kong was also once a place relatively free from CCP control through its one country two systems policy. We have all watched as the people of Hong Kong come out to protest when the CCP moved to gain more control over the region through its extradition bill. Now, three months on, the demonstrators have shown us what unity, the people, and democracy in action can look like against an authoritarian regime.

Yet the CCP will not back down. Instead of listening to legitimate complaints from Hong Kong, they have shown us an unwillingness to work for its people, and reacted with police brutality, arrests, violence, fear, rigidity, and by bringing in their army. This is not a “people’s republic.” This is Xi Jinping’s dictatorship.

The situation in Hong Kong right now is a turning point – the way Tiananmen Square was a turning point. The way the July 5th, 2009 massacre of protestors in Urumchi was a turning point for Uyghurs. Protest, crackdown, and silence. That is what happened in the past. The world did not respond to China then. Thousands were killed, and thousands more disappeared. The world believed China would solve their internal problems and move to become a better country. The world was wrong.

After 2009, the CCP created its most securitized surveillance state in East Turkestan, an open-air prison on all accounts, and detained up to 3 million of its citizens in concentration camps. What’s happening to the Uyghurs is a blueprint for what can happen to the rest of China, and if unchecked, many of these tactics to control people will enter – and are already entering – Hong Kong, Taiwan and the rest of the world.

Keep Hong Kong free. Keep Taiwan free. Time and time again the CCP have proven to us that we cannot believe their empty promises. We need true democracy and freedom. We need to value our identity, worth, beliefs, and dignity – we need to resist CCP assimilation. Do not give up on what makes you who you are. We need to be able to live without fear of persecution based on our different appearances, our languages, beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles; without fear that these aspects of ourselves will be destroyed in favor of complete conformity to the Party’s will. We need to live without the fear and devastation of family separation, forced marriages, the destruction of private life with government state officials literally living in our homes, forcing us to eat, sleep, and live with the very people who oppress us. This is what will happen if we do not keep Taiwan free. We need Freedom to move into China; we do not want the CCP’s regime to spread to the rest of the world.

Taiwan has been an example to millions of Chinese people that also deserve an open, free society. Each and every Chinese person, who desires freedom should support and protect the democracy in Taiwan.

Currently the Chinese communist government under Xi, instead of using Taiwan as a role model to implement democratic rule in China, intends to make it a part of China like East Turkestan, Tibet and Southern Mongolia.

Our Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongol and other Chinese democracy movement activism and the current atrocity that is taking place in East Turkestan proves that under the Chinese communist regime, it is impossible to have freedom, democracy, peace, justice, equality and a humane life.

Everyone here today – all of our fates are connected. This is a crucial time for us, a turning point in history, and it is critical that we fight together, and work together, to:

Keep Taiwan Free, Keep Hong Kong free,

Make East Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia free from the Chinese dictatorship.

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Mainstreaming Stories: A Day of Solidarity with Uyghurs

Henryk Szadziewski, Senior Researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project

The accounts of the ‘re-education’ regime that people are undergoing in those camps are harrowing…I imagine my lovely, principled, dedicated colleague there, and I feel incredibly angry.

Dr. Rachel Harris, University of London

The disappearance of Dr. Rahile Dawut, a leading expert on Uyghur folklore and traditions at Xinjiang University, into an internment camp around December 2017 shocked her academic peers outside of China as the above quote notes. Dr. Rahile worked and is friends with several overseas scholars focused on Uyghurs. In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dr. Darren Byler wrote about the indispensable support Dr. Rahile offered to researchers from the United States and Europe. Rahile’s pioneering ethnographies and student-centered approach earned her the respect of the academic community in the Uyghur homeland and abroad. She collected stories and as Darren Byler wrote she showed “how Uyghurs can take control of their own stories by sharing knowledge of their land.”

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It has been more than two years since we learned about the mass-internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in camps. Researchers have used Internet searches of government construction bids, analysis of satellite images, and interviews with Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples to uncover these secretive camps. One of these researchers, scholar Adrian Zenz, estimates the number of individuals in camps at a staggering 1.5 million.

The tight state restrictions imposed on research in the Uyghur homeland can create an information void on what is happening in the region. However, the painstaking work of these scholars offers credible evidence contradicting the Chinese government’s claim that the camps are merely ‘vocational training centers’ and presents an analytical understanding of current conditions undertaken from years of interactions with the land and people.

The response to Dr. Rahile’s disappearance and the determined exposure of human rights abuses on a vast scale is testament to a close connection between knowledge and relationships among scholars of the Uyghur experience. Given these commitments, at a time of emergency, academics are speaking out. The academy is sometimes criticized as slow to respond to crises, so when a large group of experts raises the alarm, we should listen to these voices.

For example, the November 26, 2018 ‘Statement by Concerned Scholars on China’s Mass Detention of Turkic Minorities’ includes 646 signatories from 40 countries and “calls on states and institutions to issue formal statements demanding that Xi Jinping and Chen Quanguo immediately abolish the ‘transformation through education’ detention system and release all Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other detainees.” The ‘Xinjiang Initiative’ includes 278 academics willing “to raise awareness of the situation in Xinjiang at every public event in which they are a participant,” and 391 academics have signed the ‘Czech and Slovak Appeal for the Closure of Political Reeducation Camps for Uyghurs and Other Minorities and for the Observance of Internationally Acknowledged Human Rights in the People’s Republic of China.”

On April 26, scholars will take a further step and hold ‘Mainstreaming Stories: A Day of Solidarity with Uyghurs.’ Leading researchers on Uyghurs will hold a local talk in twelve locations about the ongoing emergency in the Uyghur homeland and the initiative includes presentations by:

The series of events on three continents offers an opportunity to hear the work of these scholars, their experiences in the Uyghur region, and why the current mass-internment campaign should be a cause for global action.

A recent Uyghur Human Rights Project report documented the disappearance, internment, and imprisonment of nearly 400 Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz intellectuals. As part of the research team working on the report, I asked Uyghur intellectuals in exile about the long-term consequences of the mass-internment campaign and the targeting of intellectuals. Artist Rahima Mahmut responded: “By destroying the scholars, artists, and intellectuals there will be a void, as there will be no one to represent the thoughts and direction that future generations require to build for the future, using their deep historical and cultural knowledge.” As Rahima notes, stories matter. They become collective memories and the foundation of learning. At present, Dr. Rahile Dawut cannot tell her stories; however, her colleagues are filling the silence.

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