On the first day of Chinese Lunar New Year, around 70 people—including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Jews, white Americans, and ethnic Chinese—rallied in front of the office of U.S. Mission to the United Nations to call attention to the issue of religious freedom in Xinjiang, China.
According to the U.S. government, more than 800,000 Islam-practicing ethnic Chinese are in re-education camps, or what the Chinese government calls “vocational training center,” in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwestern part of the country. The situation has drawn condemnation from minority rights and religious freedom advocates worldwide.
After separatist terrorism attacks from 2013 to 2015 killed hundreds of civilians, the Chinese government cracked down with an iron fist on Xinjiang, a region that makes up a sixth of Chinese territory, by increasing arrests, mass surveillance, and a system of vocational training centers.
Even though the UN’s Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination has praised China for lifting ethnic Chinese Muslims out of poverty and promoting education among minorities, the Committee was extremely concerned about how the government labeled Muslims in Xinjiang, especially the Uyghurs, as “enemies of the state,” based on “nothing more than their ethno-religious identity,” according to UN reports.
Holding American flags and banners regarding freedom of religion and jailed Muslim dissidents, the crowds chanted “End the camp” and “China is a Fascist state.”
“The United States is the most influential country in world politics. Our job is to communicate to the representatives what action we, the American public, would love to see,” said Yosef Roth, a graduate student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who founded Uyghur Rally, the group that organized the protest, two months ago.
Though he has never been to China, Roth said he was touched by the media coverage on mass internment of Chinese Muslims in October last year. After researching the problem, he said he felt it was urgent to act. The aim of the protest was to press the U.S. government to address the oppression against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.
Not everyone at the rally said they felt comfortable with U.S. intervention. “I am afraid of the narrative in the U.S. that portrays China as an enemy, like the axis of evil. The human rights violations need to be stopped, but we need to avoid World War III as well,” said Vince Wong, 30, a human rights lawyer from Canada. He thinks pressure from international organizations and globally recognized human right standards will be more helpful to Chinese Muslims than the American government.
“On a global level, Islamophobia exists in ways that we cannot imagine. And we live in a time where ‘refugee’ suddenly has a negative connotation to it,” said Imam Khalid Latif, a speaker at the rally and the executive director for the Islamic Center at New York University.
Organizers said they scheduled the rally strategically, when reporters were covering Chinese New Year, but the event was not meant as a disrespect to Chinese culture.
The Chinese embassy in DC, the general consulate in New York, and China’s mission to the United Nations—none were available to comment on the demonstration. All three were closed for the Lunar New Year.