Database Entry: “Like We Were Enemies in a War": China's Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang
Religious Persecution

“Like We Were Enemies in a War": China's Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang

June 11, 2021
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Amnesty International interviewed 65 Muslim men and women who lived in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2021. They described an environment that was extraordinarily hostile to the practice of Islam. By the time these individuals left China, none felt comfortable displaying any signs of religious practice and all believed that doing so would result in them being detained and sent to a camp. According to these witnesses, numerous Islamic practices that Muslims widely consider essential to their religion that were not explicitly prohibited by law in Xinjiang are now, in effect, prohibited. Muslims are prevented from praying, attending mosques, teaching religion, wearing religious clothing, and giving children Islamic-sounding names. Former residents also said that appearing insufficiently secular – for example, not drinking alcohol, not smoking, or eating only halal foods – was also grounds for being classified as suspicious and sent to an internment camp.

As a result of the constant credible threat of detention, Muslims in Xinjiang modified their behaviour to such an extent that they no longer display outward signs of religious practice. Saken, a former detainee, told Amnesty that Muslims in his town changed their behaviour to dissociate themselves from the practice of Islam. “Before [2017] we could pray, and we could fast… In 2016, the governor of Xinjiang was greeting Muslims during Ramadan. But after the camps started, people did not pray or fast… People were afraid even to talk to imams… We could not even greet each other in the Islamic way,” he said. Many other former residents also reported that they had either been instructed by the authorities or that it was generally understood that it was forbidden to use traditional Islamic greetings. “We couldn’t say ‘as-salamu alaykum’ to each other anymore,” Yerkinbek said.

Auelbek, who had been involved with his local mosque for most of his life before being taken to an internment camp, told Amnesty he found that people in his village had stopped praying after his release: “Not a single person [in my village] can pray anymore. It is because the government is against religion. They are against Muslims.”

Daulet, who said he had been sent to a camp for his affiliation with what he described as a government- approved mosque, told Amnesty how people’s behaviour in his village had changed as a result of the new restrictions put in place in 2017 and still in effect when he was released from the camp in 2019:
Now [in 2019] people have stopped talking about religion… No one comes to Friday prayers [in our village] anymore… Every village has its own policies. In our village women were eventually allowed to wear headscarves again… in other villages they cannot… I’ve heard that in some villages you could read the Qur’an, but in our village it is completely forbidden, even today.

Raziya told Amnesty that civil servants had been prohibited from fasting and attending mosques for several years, but that in 2016, the government started to try to prevent everyone from fasting and praying. “They forbade us from fasting, especially during Ramadan. They would call us to [the village administration office] and feed us. And during Ramadan they would monitor whose light was on in the house [to see who was praying]… People started to be afraid of [being seen] not drinking alcohol,” she said.

Amnesty International interviewed witnesses who said the government prevented them from carrying out traditional rituals and ceremonies for marriages, baby-naming, and funerals. “Now if someone dies only direct relatives come to funerals,” Daulet said. Yerkinbek told Amnesty, “In the past we used to pray and celebrate religious holidays. Now, none of this happens… No one can pray at funerals anymore. It makes people really upset because they cannot bury their loved ones in the proper way.”

Saken told Amnesty that since 2017 government cadres had asked people in his village to sign documents stating whether they were religious and that many people who were religious felt compelled to say they were not because they were afraid of what might happen to them if they told the truth. Saken further described how police and government cadres halted a funeral he attended in 2019 in the middle of the ceremony because they said the dead person had signed a document saying he was not religious and that it was therefore not permitted to perform religious funeral rituals for him.

Meryemgul, a former detainee, recounted how government officials had stripped the religious aspects from traditional ceremonies in her village:
Weddings are now held according to the instructions of government. In our tradition, the imam reads verses [from the Qur’an] and gives names to newborn babies, but now it is [a government official] who give names and there is no reciting the Qur’an… And there are forbidden names [to give to your children], the Islamic names… They also started to change the names of people who already had Islamic names, like ‘Mohammed’.

Numerous former residents of Xinjiang told Amnesty International that it had become forbidden to possess any religious artefacts in their houses or any religious content on their phones, including religious books, films, or photographs. Amnesty also spoke with three individuals – two former government cadres and one person who assisted government cadres – who had been involved with the monitoring and searching of people’s property; two of them provided first-hand accounts of removing prohibited artefacts from Muslim households.

Several former residents also said that cultural books, artefacts, and other content associated with Turkic Muslim culture have, in effect, been banned. Members of ethnic minority groups were pressured to destroy these and replace them with Chinese books and art. “The restrictions are not just about religious things… I was in my cousin’s house and [they were made to take down] their traditional wood carvings, and even the carpets [were cut]. There was something written in Uyghur on the back of the carpet… Since it was written in Uyghur [the authorities] made them cut it off,” Saken said.

Former residents reported that their homes were searched by police or government cadres. Some reported burning or destroying all their books and cultural artefacts related to Islam or Uyghur or Kazakh culture in anticipation of being searched. “There was an announcement that everyone should bring in their books [to the government office]… We had a bookshelf. We had Uyghur books. We didn’t submit the books because that would be supplying evidence. So, we hid the books. Some people burned the books. We hid them while I was there,” Gohernisa said. “We were afraid. We tore [our Qur’an] into little pieces and then burned it,” Saken said.

Raziya described how she observed that between 2016 and 2017 government officials in her area went from targeting certain “categories” of religious people – for example, those who dressed in a religious manner or other local government officials (who were required to be secular) – to targeting all Muslims. She said that in 2017 local government officials started searching all Muslims and Muslim households for signs of religious practice. She described the lengths to which her family went to hide the religious artefacts in their house:
[Security agents] started checking phones in the street and searching for Qur’ans and prayer mats and prayer beads [in our house]… We had to get rid of these things… We couldn’t just throw [our Qur’an] away so we put it in a pot and boiled it, then we threw it away. We believed that if we boiled it then the police couldn’t find the fingerprints on the books.

Meryemgul, who worked for the government, said government officials would regularly visit the houses of Muslim families in her village to check for any signs of religious practice, and that if religious artefacts were found, those families were at risk of being sent to camps.
[I]f there is a crescent on the door, you have to remove it. If there is any shape, like a dove or an ark, you have to change it… Anything from a different culture, you have to change it… There was one Qur’an given by the government allowed in each house. You can’t have anything else related to religion.

Aiman, who worked for the government, told Amnesty how government cadres and police barged into the homes of Muslim families and forcibly confiscated all religious artefacts:
We went to [a part of the village] where 20 families from [a Muslim ethnic group] lived. We had to take out everything to do with religion and show them that these were illegal things… While we were doing this, we wouldn’t even knock on the door… We would just go in without asking for permission… People were crying… We gave everything to the police… We also told them to remove things written in Arabic.

Aiman also explained to Amnesty that government cadres regularly monitored the houses of ethnic minorities for religious artefacts. “[When we visited the houses of families we were responsible for] we had to make sure they did not have a photo of a mosque or anything linked to religion. And everyone was required to have a Chinese flag. We told them to remove photos [of mosques] and to put up flags.”

Mehmet, who also worked for the government, told Amnesty that he and his colleagues were responsible for searching people’s homes for religious and cultural artefacts. “We would check every house in the village for literature and books written in Kazakh or calligraphy in Arabic, he said. We had to collect and burn them… We gathered the books [from people’s homes] and then took them to the community office. The guards at the officed burned them. I saw them.”