Day 6

Ramadan in China: Uighur journalists say even fasting can land people in internment camps

From teachers who force children to eat during the day to managers who monitor employees' diets, fasting during Ramadan can be dangerous for China's Muslim minority.

Observing the holy month is seen as a 'sign of extremism' by Beijing, says Amnesty International

A demonstrator wears a mask painted with the colours of the flag of East Turkestan and a hand bearing the colours of the Chinese flag in protest of China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
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When her manager in Xinjiang, China, invited her for lunch during Ramadan, Sada says she knew it wasn't a kind or innocent gesture.

It was, in fact, a test, she says.

"If he [found] out I was fasting, so he [would] report me to the higher manager," said Sada, who uses a pseudonym because she worries for her family's safety in China.

As Muslims across the world embark on Ramadan this week, China's Uighur Muslim minority community will not be able to join in without severe risks to their safety.

According to Amnesty International, Chinese authorities in some parts of the country see fasting during Ramadan as a "sign of extremism."

In Xinjiang, open displays of religiosity — wearing a hijab, growing a beard and fasting — could land a Muslim in an internment camp.

Sada, who left China in 2016, says Ramadan must be "a misery" for her parents back home.

People protest at a Uighur rally on February 5, 2019 in front of the US Mission to the United Nations. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Her father, a government employee, is too afraid to fast lest his supervisors find out, says Sada, who now works as a reporter at Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C.

Religious oppression has gotten worse for Uighurs over the years, says Alim Seytoff, the director of Uighur services at Radio Free Asia.

"I left China in 1996 to the United States for school, and while I was there ... the situation was not as horrible as it is today," he said.

"Uighur people enjoyed a relative freedom as [the] rest of China. At the time, China was opening up to the rest of the world, especially to the West. So China was very careful in terms of human rights issues [and] religious freedom issues."

At the time, Uighurs could fast "quietly, within the privacy of their own home," he said. "It couldn't be a group activity."

Demonstrators waving the flag of East Turkestan attend a protest of supporters of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, on July 5, 2018. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

But a drastic policy change in 2016 ushered in much more aggressive policing and crackdown on Uighur people's beliefs, Seytoff says.

"At the moment, it has become impossible for the Uighur people to even say 'as-salamu alaykum,' even give their babies names such as Mohamed, Fatima," he said.

During Ramadan, even school children in elementary and middle schools are not spared from surveillance, Seytoff also said.

Teachers would provide snacks or water during the day to see if the children are fasting, he said.

They'd also ask students about their parents' activities.

"The little kids … tell their teachers … about what their parents have been doing at home, like fasting and praying," Seytoff said.

You feel guilty because your loved ones, they can't do what you can do and they are in the camps because of what you are doing in the free world.- Alim Seytoff, director of Uighur services at Radio Free Asia

"Then the teacher will report that to the school authorities, police authorities, then … the parents of the child who spoke the truth got in big trouble with authorities."

Sada says it's been months since she's heard from her parents.

"They just stopped calling," she said, adding she's never told them about the work she's doing in media because that information could send them to an internment camp.

For Uighurs in the diaspora, praying during Ramadan feels like a privilege, Seytoff said.

"On the other hand, you feel guilty because your loved ones, they can't do what you can do and they are in the camps because of what you are doing in the free world."


To hear more from Alim Seytoff and Sada, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.

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