Propaganda aimed overseas is not a guarantee of religious freedom for Uyghurs

Uyghur Human Rights Project Commentary

Eid ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar (2010)

Eid ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar (2010) courtesy of Preston Rhea

In the run up to Ramadan 2016, the Chinese government and state media put considerable effort into convincing the world that the religious freedom of Uyghurs is respected.

On June 2, three days before the beginning of Ramadan, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper titled Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang. The document comes nineteen years after a previous white paper with a similar title, Freedom of Religious Belief in China. The difference in last word in the two titles is telling and reveals some of the pressure Chinese officials are under from overseas states and groups regarding allegations of religious curbs placed on Uyghurs.

A report released by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) in 2013 detailed a number of these concerns. For example, Uyghur religious leaders, such as imams, are carefully vetted and required to attend political education classes to ensure compliance with state regulations before they are able to take up their positions. UHRP also described restrictions on Uyghurs concerning religious dress, mosque attendance, religious education and undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage.

A further prohibition on students, teachers and government workers from fasting during Ramadan has caused the most disquiet overseas in the past, particularly in Muslim countries where China is keen to promote a positive image as it embarks on its ambitious One Belt, One Road economic initiative. Therefore, the timing of the white paper’s release, as well as a raft of puff pieces in the state media during Ramadan in 2016, comes as no surprise.[1]

Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang promised: “To let the peoples of the rest of the world know the real situation of religious freedom in Xinjiang” and states the “central government and local governments at all levels of Xinjiang have fully implemented the system of regional ethnic autonomy and the policy on the freedom of religious belief, and constantly improved laws and regulations on the administration of religious affairs.”

UHRP’s 2013 report asserts it is those very laws and regulations that have legitimized the repression of Uyghur religious freedom by criminalizing an increasing number of peaceful religious practices. Rather than simply outright forbid religious observance, Chinese local and central authorities have implemented legislation that has progressively narrowed the definition of lawful activity, including on who can and who cannot fast at Ramadan. It is through such shades in the legal code China is able to demonstrate to the world that it respects religious freedom while violating it at the same time.

However, international human rights standards do not fit with such nuances and state abuse of one individual’s religious freedom amounts to China not meeting its rights obligations. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines: “Everyone [UHRP bold] has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This human rights standard is restated in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and Article 2 of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

Ramadan for Uyghurs in 2016 was no different than any other. The same restrictions facing students, teachers and government workers on fasting were still in place, and as a result the same right to religious freedom violated. Reports from The Washington Post, Radio Free Asia,[2] AFP and China Digital Times all document the familiar curbs placed on some Uyghurs wishing to observe the Ramadan fast.

What differentiates Ramadan in 2016 from previous years is that the holy month formed part of China’s on-going effort to convince the world of its sincerity toward religious tolerance. While a few Muslims overseas protested Ramadan curbs in 2016, China invited delegations of clerics from Pakistan, Muslim civil society organizations from Indonesia and overseas journalists to witness China’s respect for Islam and Ramadan. The extent of Chinese government management of these visits and the freedom to talk openly with ordinary religious Uyghurs is not fully known. One editorial in the Pakistani media called the visit of the clerics “a junket.” However, some sections of the Pakistani press were firm on China’s earnestness, as was the delegation of clerics on Uyghurs’ ability to freely observe the fast.

Nevertheless, the United States remains unconvinced. A State Department spokesperson told the Press Trust of India on June 29: “We call on Chinese authorities to protect freedom of religion and allow citizens to worship freely in accordance with China’s international human rights commitments.” On July 6, one day after the end of Ramadan, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a strong condemnation of the fasting restrictions placed on Uyghurs stating: “These restrictions are particularly egregious during this month-long period of introspection, fasting, prayer, and devotion.” Overseas media, such as Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, were lukewarm to the assertions made in Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang.

While the propaganda of the 2016 white paper claims: “freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region today cannot be matched by that in any other historical period” and Chinese government sponsored “fact-finding” trips attempt to positively spin discriminatory legislation to the outside world, Ramadan 2016 has also shown there is little change toward the improvement of religious freedom among all Uyghurs.

A more credible approach China should take to assure an overseas audience that it is meeting the Uyghurs’ right to religious freedom is to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief to the region and offer unfettered access to Uyghur communities. Such unconditional monitoring trips should also be extended to overseas diplomats and journalists, as well as delegates from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

[1] For more examples from Xinhua see: Chinese Muslims observe Ramadan (June 6, 2016); Online food ordering a hit in Urumqi during Ramadan (June 14, 2016); Across China: Kashgar’s signature food is far from half-baked (July 6, 2016) and China Focus: 20 min Chinese Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr (July 6, 2016).

[2] See also: China Enters Ramadan With Round-The-Clock Surveillance of Mosques, Uyghurs (June 6, 2016).

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