The Uighurs (pronounced “Wee-gers”) are a Central Asian people group relatively unknown to the Western world. The majority of them live in northwest China, in an area known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which is their ancestral homeland. Xinjiang is home to about 10 million Uighurs.
In ethnolinguistic terms, the Uighurs are a Turkic people group. They’re closely related to such peoples as the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, and the Uzbeks, who live just to the west in the former Soviet Union. In fact, the Uighur language is so close to Uzbek that speakers of the two languages can understand one another. All Turkic peoples originally come from this region, and they’re closely related to the Mongols.
The Uighurs have lived in this part of Central Asia for centuries. Their ancestors were influenced by the Church of the East in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. There were still Nestorian churches among them in the high-Middle Ages when they formed part of the Turko-Mongol confederation that Genghis Khan led to victory in the 13th century. In the centuries that followed the great Khan’s death, however, Nestorian Christianity was wiped off the map in Central Asia, and Islam became the region’s sole religion. The Uighur religion is Sunni Islam, with heavy residual influence from pre-Islamic animism. There are only a handful of Uighur followers of Jesus in China, with slightly more next door among the Uighur minority in Kazakhstan.
There are only a handful of Uighur followers of Jesus in China, with slightly more next door among the Uighur minority in Kazakhstan.
China has long regarded this part of Central Asia (known historically as East Turkistan) as part of its sphere of influence. For centuries, China’s greatest threat came from the Turkic and Mongol tribes to her north and west. The threat from the north was sufficiently serious to lead them to build their famous Great Wall. Chinese power in Central Asia has waxed and waned over the centuries, but for some time the Chinese have included the Uighur homeland within their empire. They regard the area as a necessary buffer zone to ensure the Chinese heartland’s security.
Uighur Independence and China’s Response
In recent decades, some Uighurs have agitated for independence from China. The newfound freedom of their Turkic cousins in former Soviet Central Asia has spurred Uighurs toward emancipation. Some Uighur nationalists have carried out terrorist acts in China. For their part, Han Chinese (the predominant people group in China) have worked to quell Uighur nationalism, securing Xinjiang as part of China. The central government has invested a number of resources into Xinjiang’s infrastructure, but these jobs have largely gone to Han Chinese.
As recently as 35 years ago, the classic Silk Road Oasis cities of Xinjiang looked, felt, and sounded Islamic and Uighur. The Chinese government has now bulldozed large portions of those cities, destroying the distinctive Uighur architecture and replacing it with modern Han Chinese buildings.
The Chinese government has particularly focused on suppressing Islam. Uighur government officials have been forbidden from fasting during the month of Ramadan. In the ancient city of Kashgar, the government built a pork market around a historic mosque and shrine—a deliberate act of desecration and insult to the Muslim population. The government has actively encouraged Han Chinese to move into Xinjiang, so that the Uighurs are no longer a majority in their homeland.
All of this has been carried out over the last few decades, leaving the Uighurs a frustrated and suppressed minority in their land.
Recent Internment Camps
In the last few years, though, the Chinese government has increased pressure on the Uighurs dramatically. Scores of internment camps have been built. At first, the Chinese government denied the camps even existed, but after satellite images made their existence irrefutable, the government began to describe them as “reeducation” camps. It is estimated that as many as 1 million Uighurs—10 percent of the Uighur population in China—have been interned in these camps.
From reports that have managed to get out of Xinjiang, people are arrested and sent to the camps for things as simple as men having long beards or women covering their heads. People have completely disappeared after being sent to these camps. There are credible accusations that Uighurs are being subjected to forced sterilization to reduce their numbers in China. This is one of the worst human-rights crises in recent years.
There are credible accusations that Uighurs are being subjected to forced sterilization to reduce their numbers in China. This is one of the worst human-rights crises in recent years.
The Chinese government justifies its measures against its Muslim citizens by appealing to a global fear of Islamic terrorism. Much of the world seems content to leave China alone and allow her to pursue these oppressive actions against the Uighurs. The Islamic world in particular seems strangely silent about this persecution.
Pray for the Uighurs
The world is beginning to wake up to what’s happening in Xinjiang. The BBC recently ran a series of articles exposing the situation. A few governing officials in the Western world have begun to speak out. But the Chinese government clearly feels impervious to outside pressure in this matter, at least for now.
Pray for the Uighur people. Pray they would be treated with human dignity. Pray, most of all, that the gospel would penetrate all the barriers that surround them and reap a harvest among these precious people whom God loves.
The Gospel Coalition