A new human rights report on China revealed that hundreds of Muslim religious leaders have been detained in China’s Xinjiang region since 2014.
A report released by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) on Thursday, May 13, details the mass detention of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim religious leaders.
“China’s persecution of imams stretches back decades, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the screws were tightened even further and thousands were likely arrested and sentenced,” said Peter Irwin, UHRP senior program officer and author of the report.
UHRP executive director Omer Kanat said the “wholesale round-up of imams” exposes the Chinese government’s intention to destroy their faith and traditions.
“Eliminating religious teachers is a weapon for eliminating Islam from our homeland,” he said in a statement, adding that “Uyghur and other Turkic imams are the custodians of religious scholarship and teaching.”
The report titled “Islam Dispossessed: China’s Persecution of Uyghur Imams and Religious Figures,” reveals that 1,046 Turkic imams and other religious figures have been detained in camps or imprisoned since 2014.
The report notes that of the 1,046 recorded cases, 428 have been sent to formal prisons, including 304 sentenced to prison terms.
Of the cases with sentencing information, 96 percent have received prison terms of five years or more, and 25 percent were sentenced to 20 years or more, often on unclear charges.
Another 202 religious figures have been detained in camps while 18 have died while in detention or in prison, or shortly thereafter, says the report.
The study based its findings on official papers, testimonies by relatives, public and private databases, and media reports.
The imams have been sentenced for “illegal” religious teaching, prayer outside a state-approved mosque, the possession of “illegal” religious materials, and communication or travel abroad.
The dataset includes cases of prison sentences of 15 years or more for “teaching others to pray,” “studying for six months in Egypt,” “refusing to hand in [a] Quran book to be burned,” and a life sentence for “spreading the faith and for organizing people.”
In a statement, UHRP said the figures presented are not comprehensive, given the extreme secrecy and lack of transparency in the Uyghur Region.
“Nonetheless, the data provides an alarming indication of the scale and severity of the Chinese government’s persecution of religious figures since 2014,” it added.
The report states that Chinese authorities have also prohibited the teaching of religion at all education levels; banned the use of traditional Islamic names like Muhammad and Medina for Uyghur children; and banned long beards for Uyghur men and headscarves for women.
Authorities also reportedly instituted an “anti-halal” campaign to prevent the labeling of food and other products this way; criminalized Hajj pilgrimage without government approval; and adopted legislation broadly defining quotidian religious practices as “extremist.”
Various human rights groups and Western countries have long accused China of repression against Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang region, but Beijing has repeatedly rejected the accusation, calling it the “lie of the century.”
Chinese authorities have said that the camps found in the autonomous region are not concentration camps, but vocational centers implementing projects to reduce poverty, as well as fight terrorism and separatism.