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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Freedom Of Religion: 11 Nations of Particular Concern

Press Release - USCIRF Recommends 11 Nations to Secretary Powell As Countries of Particular Concern

Prayer at the Id Kah Masjid KashgarThe U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended to the US Secretary of State that it designate 11 countries as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) for the systematic, ongoing violations of religious freedom. Not suprisingly China is one of the nations classified.

The U.S. Congress created the Commission in 1998 and the Commission is charged with identifying countries that practice on-going violations of religious liberty and recommending economic and diplomatic steps that the U.S. government should take to pressure governments to end religious persecution.

The covering letter of the commission's findings to Secretary of State Colin Powell (Feb, 10 2004) states in part:

"The Commission remains especially concerned about the situation in China, where repression of religious freedom continues to be a deliberate policy of the Chinese government. In the past year, Chinese authorities have intensified their violent campaign against religious believers, including Evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other groups, such as the Falun Gong. This campaign has included imprisonment, torture, and other forms of ill treatment. As you know, the Commission attempted to travel to China twice in the past year but was thwarted in both attempts by unacceptable limits imposed by the Chinese government that prevented such a visit. The Commission recently visited Hong Kong, but continues to seek a visit to other regions of China."

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance

- Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Constitution

Religious freedom in China is “guaranteed” under the Constitution of The People’s Republic of China (1998) as the following extract states:

Article 36 of the PRC Constitution (as amended) 1998

"Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organisation or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination."

Article 36 of the Constitution is quite clear in guaranteeing China’s citizens the right to enjoy freedom of religious belief.

There is however a rider, one that is all powerful:

No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order..” or “interfere with the educational system of the state”

The Reality

The Chinese claim that the Uygur people of Xinjiang, as do all China's citizens, enjoy great religious freedoms. The supporters of the Uygur and independent organisations and commentators say they do not.

The Chinese claim that:

The great majority of Islamic people in Xinjiang and other religious believers there are patriotic and law-abiding and conduct their religious activities as permitted by laws and regulations and government policies.Chinese Embassy US

The opposition claims that the “laws and regulations and government policies” amount to nothing less than religious persecution and denial of Uygur rights as set out in the constitution. And further that these “laws and regulations” are being used to destroy Uygur culture.

What then is the true case? Who is right?

Firstly some history......

Prior to the Cultural Revolution in 1966 the Uygurs enjoyed almost normal freedoms of religion. With the advent of the Cultural Revolution there was a massive wave of anti religious feeling throughout China and, for Xinjiang and the Uygur, this resulted in deprivation of religious freedoms and the destruction of many hundreds of masjids (mosques).

After the Cultural Revolution in the years 1983 to 1996 Uygur Muslims experienced virtually no religious persecution, on the contrary their religion began to prosper.
Masjids destroyed in the days of the Cultural Revolution were repaired and rebuilt and the total stock was actually added to. Restrictions on trips to Mecca were loosened and reputedly some 30,000 Xinjiang Muslims were allowed to take the trip. State Officials, employees and young people were not banned or actively “discouraged” from openly practicing their religion as is the case today.

It would appear, however, that in years 1996/97 the Chinese authorities’ position vis a vis the Uygur changed dramatically and from the Uygur's point of view certainly not for the better.

Whether the Chinese became aware of some significant Separatist/Islamic/Terrorist plan, or concluded that the growing Uygur unrest and sentiment for Uygur Separatism had either religious foundations or that religious gatherings were being used as venues to ferment unrest, we may never know. We do know that the Chinese attitude as it concerns the "Uygur Question" changed very comprehensively and very brutally.

Now to today

It is impossible to analyse all claims of religious persecution in the space available in this format so I will look a few items only.

Masjids And Their Use

Uygurs Pray at a MasjidA point often made in any article on Uygur religious freedom is that those under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter mosques.

Prior to 1996 this does not seem to have been the case.

It has been said that this is a distinct policy of the Chinese applied only to the Uygur and is an attempt to break the “religious cycle” to raise up a generation of "Uygur atheists".

(The) “Chinese government is trying to cultivate Uyghur’s next generation as an atheist.(sic) If you visit east Turkistan you will see on the door of each mosque was written that less than 18 years old are forbidden to enter” (sic) Religious Intolerance

(It must be said that while this particular case is unique generally speaking in China children of primary and secondary school age are not allowed to be overtly religious in public.)

I put the question as to what restrictions are placed on "Inland Muslims" (closer to Beijing) to a Muslim Hui from Yunnan China who is a devout Muslim but no great lover of the system and his answer was:

Yes, there are some restrictions, for example primary school and middle school must be non-religious in China

In response to my question as to age restrictions in Masjids he goes on to say,

but not the kind you mentioned, even junior communist members can go to Masjid in inland China”

So it is obvious from this and other anecdotal information that this is a distinct discrimination against Uygur Muslims that is not practiced against Chinese/Hui Muslims. As such it must be an open violation of the Constitution despite the rider, for why would any 17 year old Uygur boy, by going to a mosque, be more likely to “make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order.” than his Hui ethnic counterpart?

Another standard complaint raised in the West is that the building of Masjids is outlawed in Xinjiang.

Tom Malinowski Director of Human Rights Watch testifying in front U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations recently stated:

As the State Department report makes clear, authorities in Xinjiang have in fact cracked down on all independent manifestations of faith by Muslims. Officials have prohibited the building of new mosques....”

The Chinese in response to similar criticisms in the past have kept a line similar to the following quote:

There are nine million Moslems in Xinjiang, accounting for half of all the Moslems in China, but the number of mosques in the region totals 23,000 and represents two-thirds of the total in China, or one mosque for every 200 Moslems” Chinese Embassy USA

From my understanding the Chinese figures are reasonably correct and therefore it does beg the question as to why the Uygurs would need more mosques? (if in fact they really do) In a land of religious privations the per capita mosque count must be considered reasonable.

The real problem however is not not being allowed to build masjids but in the ability to use them as they wish. The Chinese position is very much like the United States saying to it’s citizens that they have the right to bear arms but you can not have ammunition:

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of north-western China (previously known as Eastern Turkestan), Forum 18 News Service reports on the pervasive state control over the religious life of native Muslims, who make up about half the local population. Mosques are strictly controlled by the authorities and all the imam-hatybs are state-appointed. Posters on mosques declare that children under 18 cannot attend, while an unofficial order bans employees of state-run companies from attending under threat of dismissal.”
Muslim News UK

Islamic Literature

Another point often raised is the freedom of religious literature. It has been claimed that many religious texts are banned and that some, for example, are banned from sale in the Uygur language but are freely available to non Uygur Muslims. This would seem to be borne out by many sources.

Rukiye Turdush in her moving article 35 Days in East Turkistan reports on a conversation with a Hui Muslim:

“One Hui [Chinese Muslim from Central China] man..... tried to explain Hui history to me.

For us religion is not very restricted. I don’t understand why the government has restricted the Uyghur’s religion. Usually most of the religious books which ( are banned from use ) used by the Uyghurs are published by our publishing house.’ he said.”

There are many other supporting anecdotal reports along similar veins.

The state protects normal religious activities

PRc Constitution

Private Religious Study

Another oft heard complaint is that the Uygur are restricted from the private study of the Qu’ran. By private I mean not through the Masjids but either in home groups or Uygur religious schools (madrassas). It would appear that the Chinese have a great fear that small groups of Uygurs meeting behind closed doors pose a security threat. As such these Madrassas (Islamic Schools) are outlawed and even small gatherings of families and friends for religious study are not tolerated

"Fear is rampant among the Uyghur religious community. There is no place where ordinary Uyghur Muslims can teach their children what their forefathers believed for more than one thousand years. I always wanted to teach my son Azimat Ghayret who is now in Urumchi to study Quran. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any place to send him since China considers private religious education as illegal religious activity.”

Ghayret Sidik Testimony to the US Government Committee

No single person in China has been or will be detained or imprisoned simply because of their religious beliefs or their legal religious activities

PRC American Embassy 2000


Despite the “guarantees” of the Chinese Constitution and the words of their Ambassadors and others there is no unfettered freedom of religion in China.

For the Uygur it appears that they are being singled out for repressive religious policies above and beyond that which the other ethnic or religious groups are experiencing (with the possible exception of the Tibetans).

The Chinese are using the constitution (which supposedly guarantees religious freedom) to actually assist them in denying same to yhe Uygur. By using arbitrary judgements of “state security” and “public order” backed up by state run courts they are severely curtailing the Uygurs peaceful enjoyment of their religion.

Uygurs are being harassed, jailed or even worse for their religious beliefs.

In the words of Ghayret Sidik

Today, the only way for the Uyghurs to be a good citizen is to give up their religion, culture, tradition, and
way of life and totally conform to the standard of the Chinese government”.

Ghayret Sidik Testimony to the US Government Committee