Uyghur Christians are a rare find in Xinjiang, making up less than 2% of this primarily Muslim people group. Although Uyghur as a whole aren’t very devout, Islam is such an integral part of their identity that conversion is very rare.
Unfortunately what isn’t as rare is China’s paranoid attitude toward religion in Xinjiang. When I say “China” I mean the security bureau and to their credit they aren’t biased toward any particular religion. Each one sadly presents its own threats to national security.
Kashgar Christian Sentenced to 15 Years
The Shanghaiist website has picked up on a story that I’ve been reading about with interest over the last few months. A Uyghur Christian named Alimjan Yimit was sentenced to 15 years in prison late last year and was recently allowed to visit with his wife and son for the first time in 2 years.
Alimjan Yimit was initially arrested for his religious activity but was later charged with “selling state secrets” (which is similar in ambiguity to the American phrase “irreconcilable differences”). What secrets, you ask? He conducted a couple interviews with foreign media.
His case has been called “arbitrary” by the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and was listed as the “Top 10 Cases of Religious Persecution in China” by China Aid.
Christianity in Xinjiang
Many people don’t realize that there are government-approved Christian churches in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi. I have personally been inside and sat in on a couple services. According to Chinese law, the government is supposed to supply registered religious organizations with a plot of land and a building in which to meet. Key word: registered.
The ambiguous maze of legality in China is difficult for Christians, both Uyghur and Han, to navigate. Activities such as distributing religious materials and intending to convert people to Christianity violate laws in all of China, but since in Xinjiang the stakes are higher the enforcement of these laws tends to be more strict.
The Problem for Uyghur Christians
The problem for Uyghur Christians is how all of this – society and the law – work against them. Conversion for a Uyghur, as with many Middle-Eastern peoples, usually results in friction with or abandonment by the family. When they lose their families they must look elsewhere to find support and like-minded believers.
Unfortunately, because of fear between the Han and Uyghur, their presence in a government-approved church is difficult. Racial tension aside, none of the material or services in these churches are offered in the Uyghur languages (at least from what I have personally witnessed).
Finally, to try to convert their friends is against Chinese law. Such was the case for Alimjan Yimit who was the leader of a house church in Kashgar. The result of this unfortunate situation is 15 years in a Urumqi jail with only monthly visits from his wife and two kids.
What does China fear about religion? I’m still not entirely sure, but I do believe that China is making the same mistakes it has by cutting the internet. They are taking bold measures against certain expressions of freedom in the name of security that in the end are turning many citizens of Xinjiang into cynics.
Sources & Extended Reading:
- Joshua Project: Uyghur of Ethnic China
- Christian News Wire: Uyghur Church Leader Sentenced to 15 Years Criminal Detention
- ChinaAid: Gulinuer, Wife of Uyghur Christian Alimujiang Yimiti, Petitions for Prayer
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