By Larry Luxner, Featured in The Times of Israel
On a rainy April morning in Washington, about 150 Muslim Uyghur protestors gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy, waving light-blue flags and shouting slogans on behalf of an ethnic group few Americans have ever heard of.
They were led by the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and congressman who dedicated his life to fighting human rights injustices.
The Uyghurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) — an ancient people spread across much of East and Central Asia —live primarily in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Beijing government officially puts their number at 1.2 million, though Uyghur activists say China is actually home to 15 million Uyghurs.
And they’re treated horribly, say protesters who accuse the Xi Jinping regime of “brutal oppression and covert genocide” against Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority.
“Between 800,000 and one million Uyghurs are incarcerated in China right now. This is human rights abuse on a massive scale,” Katrina Swett Lantos, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, told me. “It is particularly insidious because they are going out of their way to target Uyghurs who have relatives in the United States.”
The activist is the daughter of lawmaker Tom Lantos— a Hungarian Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest and went on to become a member of Congress. At the time of his death in 2008, the California Democrat chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Swett Lantos organized the impromptu Apr. 19 demonstration at the Chinese Embassy on Washington’s International Place. Her group also attempted to deliver a box full of protest letters to China’s ambassador, but embassy guards refused to accept the package — and D.C. police eventually asked the group to leave the premises.
“Our job is to shine the spotlight and energize Congress,” she said in an interview as protesters gathered across the entrance to the embassy, waving hand-painted signs all around her. “China is a dangerous goliath aiming to intimidate all of Asia. We cannot give it a free pass just because it’s an economic power.”
Tayir Imim, 37, studied at Israel’s Haifa University for five months last year, and now volunteers for the Uyghur human rights movement.
“Uyghurs and Jews have a lot in common,” he said. “The experience of the Jewish people in Israel inspires us to revive our national identity and establish our own independent country.”
Imam said the current violence between Israelis and Palestinians has not dissuaded Chinese Uyghurs from those warm feelings.
“Most Uyghur people are very respectful of Jews,” he said. “They believe Jewish people are smart and very detail-oriented.”
Also chanting anti-China slogans was 24-year-old consultant Salih Hudayar.
“China occupied East Turkistan in September 1949 and officially abolished our state on Dec. 20, 1949, when we officially lost our independence,” said Hudayar, wearing a traditional four-pointed Uyghur cap known as a doppa. “Since then, we have never stopped our protest.”
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which the Uyghur people themselves refer to as “East Turkestan,” is a vast, potentially oil- and gas-rich area of western China covering nearly 643,000 square miles — nearly four times the size of California. The Uyghurs themselves are ethnically related to Turks.
In an open letter to the Chinese Embassy, Rebiya Kadeer— self-described “spiritual mother of the Uyghur Nation” and leader of both the Uyghur National Movement and the World Uyghur Congress — called on Beijing to essentially let her people go.
“Since Chen Quanguo, the former secretary of Tibet [Autonomous Region of China], took office as party secretary of the Uyghur Autonomous Region in August 2016, he has been imposing unprecedented ferocious and inhumane policies in the region,” wrote Kadeer, claiming that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been arrested simply because of their ethnic identity, or for having traveled overseas or having relatives living abroad.
She said China has sent at least 1.5 million Uyghurs to so-called “political re-education centers” to become indoctrinated with Chinese nationalist and communist ideology.
“Cities and towns across the Uyghur homeland have become deserted and almost all rural areas have been isolated from neighboring regions and blocked from visitors,” Kadeer said. “It is not a secret for the observers that only the dead have been coming out of these Nazi-style concentration camps since they were launched in late 2016.”
Among her demands to the Chinese government:
Shut down all such “re-education centers” and release all detainees.
Release all Uyghur political prisoners, including those of other ethnic groups in the region.
Account for everyone who was forcefully “disappeared” — including their children — and disclose their whereabouts.
Restore all communication rights for the region’s people, including phone service, freedom of movement and the right to contact relatives abroad.
Allow foreign journalists and investigators access to the region to conduct independent research and reporting.
Release Kadeer’s five children and 15 grandchildren, as well as her husband’s extended relatives.
Release the family members of Gulchihre Hojaand other journalists working for Radio Free Asia.
I asked Imam why the Chinese government is so intent on driving out the Uyghurs.
“Because China wants to wipe us out, so there won’t be any nation that claims ownership of the land,” he replied. “The Uyghur people claim ownership of the region. The want to assimilate our people into the Han Chinese majority by forcing us to abandon our national culture and identity. Their ultimate goal is to assimilate us and wipe out an entire nation, so there will be nobody anymore who can claim ownership.”
He added: “Maybe it won’t make a big difference or have a big impact on Chinese policy, but we just began our movement. The U.S. government says the world is aware of what the Chinese government is doing against a peace-loving, civilized people — and the world will not be silent on the issue forever.”
The Lantos Foundation welcomes the announcement that President Trump will move forward with filling the post of Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom. In May of this year as part of the Foundation's annual Solidarity Sabbath Initiative, we called upon the Trump Administration to act quickly to fill both the Ambassador at Large post as well as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. With today's announcement that the administration will nominate Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas as our Religious Freedom Ambassador, the President has taken an important step towards ensuring that America will continue to offer global leadership to those who suffer from brutal religious persecution around the world.We urge the President to move swiftly to now name a Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism. The need for this post is as great as for the Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom and we look forward to hearing a positive announcement about this position in the near future.
Lantos Foundation Releases Open Letter to President Trump Urging Appointment of Key Envoys to Combat anti-Semitism and Advance International Religious Freedom
Part of Solidarity Sabbath 2017 Initiatives.
Today, the Lantos Foundation released an open letter to President Trump, calling on his administration to act swiftly to appoint an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The letter was co-signed by former Ambassadors-at-Large Robert Seiple and David Saperstein and former Special Envoys Hannah Rosenthal and Ira Forman along with Lantos Foundation President and former Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Katrina Lantos Swett.
The letter notes the grave threats facing numerous faith communities around the world from Egypt and Pakistan to Burma and Iran to China and Russia. It underscores the importance of filling these leadership positions promptly in order to maximize American leadership internationally on behalf of persecuted communities and individuals.
The letter reads in part;
“The perilous state of religious freedom around the globe confirms the wisdom of America’s leaders in creating a legal framework for addressing these abuses and ensuring that our foreign policy remains focused on protecting and advancing these fundamental rights. The positions of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism are absolutely critical components of the legal framework.”
The open letter to the Trump administration and related outreach encouraging quick action to fill these posts is being undertaken as part of the Lantos Foundation’s annual Solidarity Sabbath which each May shines a spotlight on embattled faith communities.
Concord, NH - The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice announced today the launch of the 2016 Solidarity Sabbath, which focuses on the Chinese government’s harsh repression of freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. They are calling on individuals and faith communities around the world to devote the weekend of May 20-22, 2016 to highlight the strength and bravery of Chinese citizens who courageously live out their faith despite threats of harassment, imprisonment, and torture.
“While the Chinese government officially sanctions five religions, it does so with strict Communist Party oversight. Individuals and faith communities who follow their consciences outside the control of the Chinese Communist Party risk imprisonment, torture, or worse,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation. “Without pressure from the global community and the political leadership of free nations, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens will continue to be denied the most fundamental of human rights. Furthermore, religious freedom, tolerance, and respect are vital for the economic and social well-being of nations and their people.”
Individuals are encouraged to visit SolidaritySabbath.org to learn more about the absence of religious freedom in China. There are three ways they can participate: (1) encourage their respective faith communities to focus on the lack of religious freedom in China during the weekend of May 20-22, (2) sign the Solidarity Sabbath petition urging governments to put greater pressure on the Chinese government, and (3) reach out to one of the 2016 Solidarity Sabbath partner organizations to support their work on behalf of people in China. These partners include China Aid, Initiatives for China, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Chen Guangcheng Foundation, All Girls Allowed, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
The Solidarity Sabbath is an annual initiative of the Lantos Foundation that supports the fundamental human right of freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. During the inaugural Solidarity Sabbath in 2015, leaders across Europe and North America joined together to combat the spread of anti-Semitism. The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice is a non-profit focused on protecting fundamental human rights, promoting the rule of law, encouraging corporate responsibility with respect to human rights, and advancing the legacy and work of the late Congressman Tom Lantos.
Advance the Freedom of Religion, Conscience, and Belief
Religious and spiritual believers in today’s China are being persecuted in ways not seen since Mao's Cultural Revolution 40 years ago. On the weekend of May 20-22, 2016, religious and spiritual communities around the world will join together in the 2016 Solidarity Sabbath to highlight the strength and bravery of Chinese citizens who courageously live out their faith despite threats of harassment, imprisonment, and even torture by the ruling Communist Party.
Freedom of religion, conscience, and belief is a vital human rights issue for all global citizens, and you have a chance to help highlight the plight of the millions of Chinese denied this basic entitlement. Whether it is encouraging your faith community’s leadership to participate in the Solidarity Sabbath or petitioning your government to take part, there are so many ways to make a difference.
Learn more at SolidaritySabbath.org