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(New York) - The Chinese government is directing a crushing campaign of religious repression against China’s Muslim Uighurs in the name of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China said in a new report today.

The 114-page report, Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, is based on previously undisclosed Communist Party and government documents, as well as local regulations, official newspaper accounts, and interviews conducted in Xinjiang. It unveils for the first time the complex architecture of law, regulation, and policy in Xinjiang that denies Uighurs religious freedom, and by extension freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Chinese policy and law enforcement stifle religious activity and thought even in school and at home. One official document goes so far as to say that “parents and legal guardians may not allow minors to participate in religious activities.”

“The worldwide campaign against terrorism has given Beijing the perfect excuse to crack down harder than ever in Xinjiang,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Other Chinese enjoy a growing freedom to worship, but the Uighurs, like the Tibetans, find that their religion is being used as a tool of control.”

The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority of some 8 million people, whose traditional homeland lies in the oil-rich Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwest China, have become increasingly fearful for their cultural survival and traditional way of life in the face of an intensive internal migration drive that has witnessed the arrival of more than 1.2 million ethnic Chinese settlers over the past decade. Many Uighurs desire greater autonomy than is currently allowed; some wish for a separate state, although there is little recent evidence of violent rebellion.

Highly intrusive religious control extends to organized religious activities, religious practitioners, schools, cultural institutions, publishing houses, and even to the personal appearance and behavior of Uighur individuals. State authorities politically vet all imams on a regular basis and require “self-criticism” sessions; impose surveillance on mosques; purge schools of religious teachers and students; screen literature and poetry for political allusions; and equate any expression of dissatisfaction with Beijing’s policies with “separatism” – a state security crime under Chinese law that can draw the death penalty.

At its most extreme, peaceful activists practicing their religion in ways that the Party and government deem unacceptable are arrested, tortured, and at times executed. The harshest punishments are saved for those accused of involvement in so-called separatist activity, which officials increasingly term “terrorism” for domestic and external consumption.

At a more mundane level, Uighurs face harassment in their daily lives. Celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one’s religion through personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state institutions, including schools. The Chinese government vets who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran is acceptable, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said.

“Uighurs are seen by Beijing as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. “As Islam is perceived as underpinning Uighur ethnic identity, China has taken draconian steps to smother Islam as a means of subordinating Uighur nationalist sentiment.”

Documents obtained and interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China reveal a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of Uighur religious activity. As Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan has stressed, the “major task” facing the authorities in Xinjiang is to “manage religion and guide it in being subordinate to the central task of economic construction, the unification of the motherland, and the objective of national unity.”

The new report details:

  • the current regulations governing religious activities in Xinjiang;
  • a manual for government and Party cadres on implementing policy on minority religious affairs, circulated internally in 2000, that elaborates many of the repressive practices subsequently codified in the regulations;
  • regulations prohibiting the participation of minors in any religious activity;
  • documents acknowledging vast increases in the number of Uighurs;
  • imprisoned or held administratively for alleged religious and state security offenses, including through the discredited reeducation through labor system; and
  • regulations detailing how religious and ethnic minority matters come to be classified as “state secrets.”

Some of these documents are made public for the first time. A selection can be found in the report’s appendices.

“These documents are deemed extremely sensitive and therefore restricted to internal Party and government circulation,” said Adams. “They are used arbitrarily to create a legal basis to target Uighurs and to create fear of meeting together, talking about problems that Uighurs face, or expressing cultural identity in an independent manner.”

An official Manual regulating religion in Xinjiang contains catch-all “offenses” that allow the authorities to deny religious freedom under virtually any pretext, such as using religion “to carry out other activities that are harmful to the good order of society,” or “to breed separatist elements and reactionary backbone elements.” It goes on to say that:

Any item to be published [including news and articles] related to research and appraisal of Islamic religion must uphold the Marxist point of view of religion, and use the yardstick of the Party’s and the government’s religious policies and regulations.

An article co-signed by the vice-director of the Xinjiang Reeducation through Labor Bureau reveals that as of 2001 almost half the detainees in reeducation camps are there for “[belonging to] illegal organizations and [engaging in] illegal religious activities.”

“Religious regulation in Xinjiang is so pervasive, that it creates a legal net that can catch just about anyone the authorities want to target,” said Hom.

Devastating Blows also details how two specific regulations––revealed here for the first time––establish a draconian ban against unauthorized disclosure of information regarding almost any national minority or religious matter or policy, even if unrelated to national security.

The report also explains how China is using the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent “war on terror” as a cover for targeting Uighurs. Although repressive religious policies in Xinjiang predate September 11, the government now asserts that it faces an Islamic-inspired separatist movement with links to international terrorist groups and Al-Qaeda. But Beijing has undermined its credibility by erasing distinctions between violent acts and peaceful dissent. Using Orwellian logic, officials now claim that terrorists pose as peaceful activists. As the Xinjiang party secretary said:

Xinjiang’s independence elements have changed their combat tactics since the September 11 incident. They have focused on attacking China on the ideological front instead of using their former frequent practice of engaging in violent terrorist operations. Literary means and arts and literature are being used to “distort historical facts…instead of engaging in violent terrorist operations…”

Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China called on the international community to press China to repeal these regulations and end their policies and practices of discrimination against Uighurs. The organizations also stressed the need to challenge Chinese assertions that all separatists are criminals or are connected to international terror networks.

“No country should return to China any Uighurs claimed by China to be involved in terrorism, separatism or other criminal acts,” said Adams. “Given China’s past record, there is every reason to fear they will be tortured or even subjected to the death penalty once back in China.”

Excerpts from Devastating Blows

"We must strengthen the management of religious public figures, and be sure that they are politically qualified. This is a demand of the first order. Political qualifications are the following: an ardent love for the motherland, support for Communist Party leaders and the socialist system, opposition to national splittism and illegal religious activities, the defense of national unity and the unification of the motherland, and a conscious compliance with the nation's laws and policies…We must implement a reinforcement of the management of the places of religious activity and the content of the texts…”

  --Xinjiang Party Secretary, Wang Lequan

"This is a Uighur school and we are mostly Uighurs working here. But neither at home nor at work are you supposed to talk to the children about religion. You just talk about it and it is illegal. Even with my own son, I am not supposed to tell him about Islam. How can this be possible?”

"Some students who are studying in our school, namely your children, have not been concentrating fully on their studies as they have been praying and keeping the fast and becoming involved in some religious activities, thus disobeying Document No. 5 1996 of the Autonomous Region Education Commission which says that students should not participate in religious activities (praying, keeping the fast and other religious activities) and also disobeying our school rules.”

"In my home village, the militia regularly comes to check villagers. They come during the night, searching house by house, and if they find religious material they take you for questioning. They say it’s “illegal religious publications.” My father is a simple farmer, what does he know if his Koran is illegal or not?”

"That is how it has gone with me, and mind you I am not what you would call a fervent Muslim. Only during class I would often talk about religious songs. They are widespread; it is absurd that you are not allowed to speak about it. It is an important part of our musical history and tradition, which is what I was supposed to teach. But then, the next term they [the school authorities] tell me not enough students enrolled in my course, which is not true. So I have not taught for a year now. They have not dismissed me and I should not complain too much because I still eat the bread of the Communist Party, but I just walk around campus or sit at my desk. It is a total waste, but it is better not to talk about it."

--Uighur professor at a higher education institution in Xinjiang banned from teaching local musical traditions.

"I managed to set up some business with other relatives, and that is my pride. I was working before in an office, dealing with food supplies for schools, but then they said: “No beards allowed in here. Not even mustaches.” I thought how can they tell me what I do with myself? This is our tradition, nobody’s business. So I had an opportunity to leave, and I left. But if you cannot find another job, in the private sector, you either shave or starve.”

During “exchange of experience” sessions clerics are asked to address the other participants with precise accounts of “difficulties” or “incidents” they have encountered in their work. For instance, an imam will describe how “illegal” religious classes were held, or how the mosque used some “illegal” religious book. They may also relate how they failed to warn the authorities about “elements” that were “agitating,” or about inviting a cleric from another area without prior authorization. Clerics also have to admit personal errors and how they have nurtured “incorrect” ideas. They also have to point out examples of such erroneous actions on the part of other members of the group.

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