Hundreds of Muslim clerics have been detained in China's Xinjiang region

Uyghurs at a mosque in Kashgar Xinjiang China Sept 2010 Credit Preston Rhea via Flickr CC BY SA 20 CNA Uyghurs at a mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, September 2010./ Preston Rhea via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

New research has shown that amid a widespread “reeducation” effort in a region of China— which the U.S. has designated a genocide— hundreds of Muslim clerics have been detained on suspicion of “extremism,” despite little evidence of any behavior other than the typical behavior of an imam. 

An estimated 1 million Uyghurs, members of a Muslim ethnoreligious group, have been detained in hundreds of “reeducation camps” in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Inside the camps the Uyghurs are reportedly subjected to forced labor, torture, and political indoctrination. Outside the camps, Uyghurs are monitored by pervasive police forces and facial recognition technology.

China has repeatedly conflated the Uyghurs’ culture and religious activities with extremism and separatism. The government at one time denied the camps even existed, but has since shifted to defending its actions as a reasonable response to a national security threat.

The BBC recently cited new research that found that China has detained over 600 imams and other Muslim religious figures in the region since 2014. The number of prison sentences has risen dramatically since 2017, with at least 200,000 people entering prison between 2017-2018. 

At least half of the 630 clerics confirmed to have been detained were given prison sentences of at least five years, the research from the Uyghur Human Rights Project found, with at least 14 receiving life sentences. 

The UHRP says imams are likely targeted because of their influence in their communities. 

Uyghurs can be arrested and detained under vague Chinese anti-terrorism laws. Violence in the region escalated in the 1990s and again in 2008.

Gulchehra Hoja, a journalist from Xinjiang, said recently that her mother, father, brother, and more than 20 relatives are detained in “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang.

“The Chinese government has established a list of criteria by which the authorities would deem someone as extremist, just to name a few: growing a beard, wearing a headscarf or long dress, keeping religious books at home, naming your child with Islamic name, as Mohamed. Just having one of those criteria applied to you is enough to be sent to camps,” Hoja said May 11 at a virtual event hosted by the U.S. embassy to the Vatican.

“Unfortunately, the Chinese government sees any religion as a threat to its rule,” she added.

A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that more than 15,000 mosques have been damaged or demolished in the region since 2018.

China’s crackdown on Xinjiang also includes alleged coercion to have contraception devices inserted, and even to have abortions and be sterilized. 

Recent reporting from the New York Times chronicles dozens of allegations from Uyghur women who say they were pressured by officials to have abortions, be sterilized, or accept contraception. 

Birthrates in the region have plummeted. In September 2020, the Xinjiang government acknowledged that birth rates there fell by nearly a third in 2018, much of which it attributed to “better implementation of family planning policy.”

The rate of sterilizations in Xinjiang also has risen, from fewer than 50 per 100,000 people in 2016, to nearly 250 per 100,000 in 2018.

And in 2018, IUDs were implanted at a rate of nearly 1,000 per 100,000 people in Xinjiang, while the rate for China as a whole in the same year was 21 per 100,000.

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Xinjiang officials claim that women are accepting birth control voluntarily. 

In January 2021,Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed his predecessor’s declaration that the Chinese Communist Party is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang.

In an interview with The World Over this month, Sam Brownback, former Ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom, said China's actions against the Uyghurs, as well as against Christians on the mainland and in Hong Kong, continue to "escalate" despite widespread reporting and condemnation from other nations.  

"They keep escalating. It's not as if the Chinese Communist Party has been caught red-handed in their war on faith...they've been caught red-handed, and they're proud of it," Brownback said. 

The Vatican has remained largely silent on the persecution of the Uyghurs, though Pope Francis did describe the Uyghurs as a persecuted people in a book published last year. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying that the claim was groundless.

The Holy See signed in 2018 and then renewed in 2020 a two-year provisional agreement with the Chinese government, the contents of which have not been made public.

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