Covering the plight of Uighur Muslims in China

Mihrigul Tursun alleges that she is one of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims who have been imprisoned in reeducation camps in China. (U.S. State Department via Creative Commons)

China’s trade war with the United States may soon be resolved, but Chinese officials’ assault on religion shows no signs of letting up. 

In recent years, the country has enhanced existing restrictions on religious practice, making it more difficult for citizens to worship, observe holidays and even talk about their faith traditions. The State Department considers China a “country of particular concern” on religious freedom.

Uighur Muslims, an ethnic and religious minority group based in China’s Xinjiang region, have faced particularly challenging conditions, and international leaders estimate that up to 2 million members of this community have been sent to state-run reeducation camps in the past few years. People are punished for visiting mosques or discussing religious texts with their families. 

Chinese officials argue that restrictions on religious practice stem from national security concerns, and they sometimes cite U.S. surveillance of American Muslims after 9/11 to justify their actions. They do face pushback, but many countries overlook human rights concerns in order to maintain important trade relationships. 

This edition of ReligionLink explores the plight of Uighur Muslims, highlighting experts who can help you cover one of the biggest religious freedom crises in the world today.

Background information

U.S. sources

  • Jan Berris

    Jan Berris is vice president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which works to nurture a healthy dialogue between U.S. and Chinese officials. Arrange an interview through Joseph Weed.

  • Samuel D. Brownback

    Samuel D. Brownback is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He previously served as governor of Kansas, as well as a U.S. representative and senator. 

  • Darren Byler

    Darren Byler is professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University. He is expert on the Uyghur Muslim community. His book, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City (Duke University Press, 2021), examines emerging forms of media, infrastructure, economics and politics in the Uyghur homeland in Chinese Central Asia (Ch: Xinjiang).

  • Jerome Cohen

    Jerome Cohen is a law professor at New York University and an expert on China’s legal system. He co-founded the Xinjiang Initiative, an effort to increase the academic community’s awareness of human rights violations in the Xinjiang region of China.

  • Olivia Enos

    Olivia Enos is a senior policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

  • Thomas Farr

    Thomas Farr is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. A former American diplomat, he writes and speaks about international religious freedom and national security. Arrange an interview through Nathan Berkeley.

  • Bob Fu

    Bob Fu is the founder and president of China Aid, an organization working to raise awareness of religious persecution in China.

  • Rongbin Han

    Rongbin Han is an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Contesting Cyberspace in China: Online Expression and Authoritarian Resilience.

  • Jewher Ilham

    Jewher Ilham is a human rights activist who began speaking out about China’s policies toward the Uighur community when her father, a Uighur scholar, was arrested in 2014. She graduated from Indiana University in 2019 and is now working on a documentary about the experiences of Uighur Muslims, called “Static and Noise.”

  • Karrie Koesel

    Karrie Koesel is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. She specializes in Russian and Chinese politics and the intersection between politics and religion.

  • Sophie Richardson

    Sophie Richardson serves as China director for Human Rights Watch. In 2018, she detailed religious persecution in China during an event with the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Marco Rubio

    Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican senator from Florida who regularly plays a central role in religion-related policy debates. He co-sponsored the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act in 2018 and helps lead the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Rubio also co-sponsored a paid family leave bill, which would enable new parents to borrow against their future Social Security income to fund leave time. 

    Contact: 202-224-3041.
  • Michael Sobolik

    Michael Sobolik is a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies for the American Foreign Policy Council. He specializes in U.S.-China relations and has written about persecution of Uighur Muslims.

  • Cui Tiankai

    Cui Tiankai is the Chinese ambassador to the United States. He has defended the imprisonment of Muslims in China, arguing that it will help them better contribute to society.

  • Nury Turkel

    Nury Turkel is the co-founder and chairman of the board for the Uighur Human Rights Project, which works to increase awareness of the plight of Uighur Muslims in China.

  • Fenggang Yang

    Fenggang Yang directs the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule. He is also an expert in Asian immigration and Eastern religions.

International sources

  • Mohd Asri bin Zainul Abidin

    Mohd Asri bin Zainul Abidin is an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Science in Malaysia and an Islamic jurist. In 2019, he called on Muslims around the world to boycott Chinese products until Uighur Muslims were guaranteed better treatment.

  • Kevin Carrico

    Kevin Carrico is a senior research fellow in Chinese studies at Monash University in Australia. He is the author of The Great Han: Race, Nationalism and Tradition in China Today and co-founded the Xinjiang Initiative, an effort to increase the academic community’s awareness of attacks on ethnic minority groups in the Xinjiang region of China.

  • Hua Chunying

    Hua Chunying is the spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    Contact: +86-10-65961114.
  • Adrian Zenz

    Adrian Zenz is a researcher and Ph.D. supervisor at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, where he studies China’s repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. He is also a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.