Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have detained hundreds of Muslim imams, according to a Uyghur linguist in exile, creating an atmosphere in which Uyghurs are “afraid of dying” because there is no one to oversee their funeral rites.
Abduweli Ayup, a Norway-based fellow with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), said interviews with Uyghurs from the XUAR have revealed that at least 613 imams were swept up in a campaign of extralegal incarceration that has seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in a vast network of internment camps in the region since early 2017.
“We started this search in 2018, around May … and after the interviews finished in November [that year], I found that the most targeted population was religious figures,” said Ayup, speaking at a Thursday webinar hosted by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) entitled “Where are the Imams? Evidence for mass detention of Uyghur religious figures.”
“At the time, we had about 300 imams listed [as detained] and then we kept updating the figures and by June, the last update, it was 613 imams listed.”
Ayup, who suffered months of incommunicado detention and torture while imprisoned in 2013-2014 after fighting for social and cultural rights through promotion of Uyghur-language education, said he had also interviewed at least 16 former camp detainees who said the arrests of imams have upended the Uyghur community in the XUAR.
“They told me that after those imams were arrested, Uyghurs became afraid … of dying because there is no imam to [oversee their] funeral,” he said.
One former detainee living in the Netherlands told him that in the XUAR capital Urumqi, “people have to register and have to wait when somebody dies.”
Another former detainee—a scholar based in Sweden—visited the XUAR in 2018 and told Ayup that despite facing regular rights abuses, “now Uyghurs are not afraid of living.”
“They are afraid of dying because the mosques are demolished, and the imams are arrested, and there is no possibility to hold a funeral, to hold the ceremony,” he said. “It’s very tragic.”
Female religious leaders
Rachel Harris, a professor of ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, noted that imams, who are male, are not the only religious figures being targeted in Uyghur society.
And while there is not an officially recognized religious category for women in Muslim communities, she noted that female religious leaders “are extremely important in Uyghur society.”
“They don’t officiate in mosques, obviously, they have a role within the home, but they do all of the same kind of important roles that the imam, the male imam do,” said the researcher of expressive culture, religion, and the politics of heritage in the XUAR.
“The [female religious leaders] are working with the women, so they officiate over the funerals of women, they teach children to recite the Qur’an and all that, and they also have an extremely important role in society—mediating disputes, giving advice, conducting all sorts of rituals.”
Harris urged Uyghur rights groups and others monitoring the region to include female religious leaders in their investigations into mass detentions and other rights abuses in the region.
Beijing describes the three-year-old network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” but reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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