Through Hell for Heaven: Religious Persecution in China

By Zahra El Bouhali


Demonstration against the violation of human rights of Uyghurs near the EU institutions in Brussels on April 27th 2018 - Emmanuel Dunand / AFP

In August 2018, a UN human rights panel cited credible reports stating that more than 1 million people are being detained in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).[1] Exact figures are unavailable and numbers from different sources vary, ranging from 500,000 to as many as 3 million people. China officially refers to these camps as voluntary vocational and re-education camps set up to tackle religious radicalization and strengthen Chinese unity.[2] One of the largest detention camps is situated in Dabancheng, having an estimated capacity of 130.000 people.[3]


The state has been accused of releasing staged images of people in classrooms praising the Communist Party for the training program. Eyewitness reports however speak of mental and physical torture in overcrowded detention centers. Detainees who refuse to accept the political ideology which is being forced upon them are subjected to secret capital punishment being neither charged nor trialed.[4]


Government spies are placed in houses of Uyghurs to monitor their daily activities and private family events such as weddings and funerals. Engaging in religious rituals or speaking Eastern Turki (the Uyghur language) has severe consequences. Uyghurs have no choice but to accept the intimidation and harassment by state officials out of fear. Numerous checkpoints have effectively turned the region into a police state and information is being blocked from reaching the media.[5]


Families in XUAR have been separated from their relatives and receive no information about their whereabouts. Houses of detainees are marked with serial numbers as a warning sign for the ones that are momentarily being spared. Communicating with relatives abroad contains great risk; state officials are checking phones and screening messages on WeChat (Chinese messaging application). Being flagged as having suspicious behavior or spreading information leads to incarceration.[6]


Human Rights Watch reported the use of artificial intelligence technologies as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). The system gathers and analyses data from internet connections, facial recognition cameras, license plate cameras, banking records, police checkpoints, police reports and mobile applications.[7] Vehicles of Uyghurs are fitted with gps tracking devices and their movement is being monitored.[8]


The scale of this violation on human rights has taken on enormous proportions; Children of imprisoned persons are taken to orphanages across XUAR even if relatives are willing to take care of them. They undergo the same fate as their parents; they are forced to denounce their religion and cultural identity and are being indoctrinated with Communist Party propaganda.[9]


The forced assimilation of Uyghurs is said to be a vital part of the of the Communist Party geopolitical scheme.[10] XUAR, which lies in the northwestern corner of the country, is rich in natural resources; it holds China’s largest natural gas reserves, almost half of the country’s coal and a fifth of its oil. These assets are of great importance for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Central Asian and Middle Eastern markets.[11]


XUAR was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and a government orchestrated influx of Han Chinese followed immediately. The mass migration altered the ethnic composition in the region and tensions have been simmering ever since. The region is now inhabited by approximately 23 million people of more than 40 different ethnic groups; Uyghur and Han are the highest represented ones.[12]


Uyghurs have dealt with discrimination throughout the years and the situation reached a boiling point in July 2009 when demonstrations escalated into violent riots. The number of demonstrators from both sides and the death toll remains disputed. The government implemented a communication blackout and the riots were blamed on extremism, separatism and terrorism.[13]


Religion has no place in China and the state is finding its way to “sinicize” it. Citizens are being obstructed from fulfilling their religious duties; people under 18 years of age are banned from entering mosques and churches. State officials have burned bibles and crosses of Christian congregations in Beijing.[14] Religious freedom in China was written in the constitution in 1982[15] and it seems that this freedom has come to a violent end.[16]


The UN requested direct access to the camps in September 2018, after the German Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, Barbel Kofler, was refused entry during a visit to China.[17] Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hami Aksoy, urged the Secretary General of the UN to take effective measures and end this human tragedy in XUAR which he refers to as a “great cause of shame for humanity”.[18]


[1] Stephanie Nebehay, "U.N. Says It Has Credible Reports That China Holds Million Uighurs...," Reuters, August 12, 2018, , accessed February 06, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-rights-un/u-n-says-it-has-credible-reports-that-china-holds-million-uighurs-in-secret-camps-idUSKBN1KV1SU.

[2] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[3] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[4] "Eradicating Ideological Viruses" | China's Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang's Muslims," Human Rights Watch, October 19, 2018, , accessed February 06, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/09/eradicating-ideological-viruses/chinas-campaign-repression-against-xinjiangs#.

[5] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[6] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[7] "China: Big Data Fuels Crackdown in Minority Region," Human Rights Watch, March 06, 2018, , accessed February 06, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/26/china-big-data-fuels-crackdown-minority-region.

[8] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[9] "China: Massive Crackdown in Muslim Region," Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2018, , accessed February 07, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/09/09/china-massive-crackdown-muslim-region.

[10] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[11] "Subscribe to the FT to Read: Financial Times Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where Have All the People Gone? ," Financial Times, , accessed February 07, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/ac0ffb2e-8b36-11e8-b18d-0181731a0340.

[12] Chiao-Min Hsieh and Victor C. Falkenheim, "Xinjiang," Encyclopædia Britannica, August 09, 2018, , accessed February 06, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/place/Xinjiang.

[13] Edward Wong, "China Locks Down Restive Region After Deadly Clashes," The New York Times, July 06, 2009, , accessed February 08, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/07/world/asia/07china.html.

[14] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[15] Joann Pittman, "What Does the Chinese Constitution Say About Religion?" Chinasource, March 20, 2013, , accessed February 08, 2019, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/what-does-the-chinese-constitution-say-about-religion.

[16] "Religious Freedom in China." Lecture, Religious Freedom in China, European Parliament, Brussels, January 23, 2019.

[17] Ben Westcott, "UN Wants Access to Xinjiang 're-education Camps'," CNN, December 06, 2018, , accessed February 08, 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/05/asia/xinjiang-united-nations-germany-intl/index.html.

[18] "Turkey Calls Out China's Repression of Uyghurs," Human Rights Watch, February 14, 2019, , accessed February 08, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/14/turkey-calls-out-chinas-repression-uyghurs.

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