The Chinese government is targeting minority Muslims in Xinjiang which is taking a toll on the community’s religious staff, according to families of the Uyghur victims, who said that their imams are the most vulnerable to persecution. According to a report by Voice of America, Uyghur Help, a Norway-based advocacy and aid organisation said that since 2016 Chinese authorities have detained at least 518 key Uighur religious figures and imams.
The organisation said that Imams, who were previously trained and employed by Beijing, are now sentenced with long prison terms while a few of them have also lost their lives in internment camps. Abdurkerim Memet, an imam, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017, according to his daughter, Hajihenim Abdukerim who resides in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The 61-year-old was employed by the Chinese government before his detention to lead prayers at a neighbourhood mosque in Yengisar county in Kashgar city in southern Xinjiang. His family rejects the Chinese government’s accusation that he was spreading extremism among the Uighurs.
“My father is a peaceful and law-abiding religious figure,” said Abdukerim, adding that her father was salaried by the Chinese government until late 2016 when the newly appointed Communist party chief, Chen Quanguo, began to further enforce Beijing’s rule over Xinjiang.
“I had never imagined him being imprisoned for serving the community. In these years, I have been only hoping to hear from him again,” she told VOA.
In April, a spokesperson for China’s Xinjiang autonomous government, Elijan Anayit accused the US officials and media of spreading “rumours” about the detention and prosecution of Uyghur imams.
However, some experts are of the view that Chinese officials are increasingly using religious extremism charges to gain a free hand in their campaign against Uyghurs and their religious leadership.
“These crimes have become so vague even before Chinese law,” Rian Thum, a historian of Islam in China at the University of Nottingham, told VOA.
“They created a long list of illegal religious activities, most of which are not actually illegal things to do in other contexts. For example, to pray at a mosque that is not your hometown mosque can be an illegal religious activity,” Thum said.
“They are people who can lead, organize, and mobilize Uighurs in large numbers, and mosques are the only places where Uighur language was kept intact,” he added.
China has been condemned internationally for cracking down on the minorities living in their countries. China has been accused of oppressing the Uighurs by sending them to mass detention camps, interfering in their religious activities and sending the community to undergo some form of forceful re-education or indoctrination. However, Pakistan has stayed mum over this issue.