Our biggest sale! 50% off your PLUS subscription. Use code SUMMER

What Christians Should Know about the Imprisonment of the Uyghurs in China

  • Kayla Koslosky Former ChristianHeadlines.com Editor
  • Updated May 14, 2021
What Christians Should Know about the Imprisonment of the Uyghurs in China

Since 2017, more than 1 million Uyghurs have been placed in one of the Chinese government's 85 identified internment camps in Xinjiang. The government claims that the camps are vocational training camps set up to help fight back against religious extremism and terrorism. Escapees of the camps, however, have described them as nothing short of torturous. Here is what you should know about the imprisonment of the Uyghurs in China:

Who Are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs, or Uighurs, are an ethnic group from the Central Asian region. They are a Turkic-speaking religious minority group that is largely made up of Muslims.

While some Uyghur communities live in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the largest population of Uyghurs live in the autonomous Xinjiang region in Northwest China. According to the New York Times, the region is also commonly referred to as East Turkestan within the Uyghurs community. The region was twice briefly name East Turkestan when two independent republics existed in the region before being overtaken by the Communists.

Despite being deemed 'autonomous', the oil-rich region is actually tightly controlled by the Chinese government. 

According to The Conversation, in Xinjiang, Uyghurs are among many Muslim minority groups who experience persecution. Other groups who experience persecution in the region are the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Hui. Persecution of Christians has also been on the rise throughout China.

The Uyghurs Have Long Experienced Discrimination

In 1949, the People's Republic of China (PRC) annexed Xinjiang, where, at the time, 76 percent of the region's population were Uyghurs, and only 6.2 percent of the population were Han Chinese. But, by 1955, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began encouraging more Han Chinese to move to the agricultural-turned-industrial region.

According to the BBC, by 2000, Han Chinese made up 40 percent of the region's population while Uyghurs made up just 45 percent. Uyghurs have long pushed back against the Chinese government's rule, which has in many cases led to violent crackdowns by the Chinese government.

The BBC reports that in the 1990s, Chinese authorities allegedly executed 30 Uyghurs separatists who were protesting against the regime.

Violence has continued in the region, and today, the Chinese government is reportedly actively rounding up the Uyghurs in the region and placing them in camps.

Where Are They Being Taken to?

According to PBS, since 2017, more than 1 million Uyghurs have been placed in one of the Chinese government's 85 identified internment camps in Xinjiang. After years of denying that the camps existed, in 2019, the government finally acknowledged their existence. But, according to Reuters, the government is claiming that the internment camps are actually vocational training camps or "re-education centers" set up to help fight back against religious extremism and terrorism.

Survivors of these camps, however, have described them as places of torture and abuse.

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that as many as 2 million Uyghurs are suspected of having been detained in these camps since 2017, though some experts believe the government began detaining Uyghurs as early as 2014. In 2018, a journalist with Reuters reported that he had observed the camps nearly triple in size from 2017 to 2018.

A Uyghur woman, what Christians should know about the imprisonment of the Uyghur people

Why Are They Being Imprisoned?

Reportedly, most of the detainees have not been legally charged with a crime and, therefore, have no way of challenging their internment. Media reports claim that many of the detainees were targeted by the government simply because of their Muslim faith. Uyghurs have long been labeled extremists by the Chinese government for merely practicing their religion. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that others have been detained for "traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; having more than three children; and sending texts containing Quranic verses."

This comes as religious persecution is on the rise across China. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan government entity established by Congress to monitor global religious liberty violations, found religious freedom had worsened in China in 2020. As Christian Headlines previously reported, the group observed that CCP officials were demolishing church buildings, imprisoning Christians and using surveillance technologies to track religious minorities.

What Is Happening in the Camps?

According to PBS News Hour, a source shared that once detained, the Uyghurs were not re-educated but instead beaten and interrogated. Some women who have escaped the camps have also reported mass rapes and sexual assaults happening in the camps, a recent BBC article says. Further, research from December 2020 revealed that as many as 500,000 detainees have been forced to pick cotton.

Global Response

The imprisonment of the Uyghurs has been met with mixed responses from the United Nations. As of October 2020, 45 countries belonging to the UN supported China's imprisonment of the Uyghurs, and 39 countries condemned it. In January 2021, on President Trump's final full day in office, the United States became the first nation to deem the action a genocide and a clear violation of human rights, the New York Times reports. Then in February, Canada and the Netherlands also passed motions recognizing the imprisonment as a genocide.

Why It Matters

The mistreatment of Muslims on the other side of the world may not seem like much of a concern to many western Christians. But as Scott Slayton argued in an Op-Ed piece for Christian Headlines, "Christians need to understand that threats to religious liberty around the globe are our concern, even when they affect people who do not share our faith in Christ."

Slayton, a retired pastor, adds that as Christians, we are commanded to "love our neighbors as ourselves" and to "take the Gospel to 'the ends of the earth'." Something he argues should "motivate our desire to see religious liberty thrive in every place on earth."

President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission also spoke on this issue in an interview with Axios, noting that Christians must care about this issue because "If no one in the world is going to notice that someone is gone, then the CCP can do whatever it wants." In regard to how Christians can help, Moore says the first step must be spreading awareness of the atrocities happening to the Uyghurs and the increased persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, in China.


Why Christians Should Care About the Mistreatment of Religious Minorities around the World

Photos courtesy: ©Getty Images/Kevin Frayer/Stringer

Kayla Koslosky is the former Editor of ChristianHeadlines.com. She has B.A. degrees in English and History and previously wrote for and was the managing editor of the Yellow Jacket newspaper. She has also contributed to IBelieve.com and Crosswalk.com.