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Holocaust Memorial Day: Jewish figures condemn Uighur persecution

Prominent British Jews warn China’s treatment of its minority Uighur population has chilling echoes of past genocides.

At least one million Uighurs have been detained in internment camps in China's northwest Xinjiang province, according to the United Nations [File: Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – Prominent Jewish figures in the United Kingdom are marking Holocaust Memorial Day by speaking out over China’s treatment of its minority Uighur population, saying they have a “moral duty” to do so.

Held every year on January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the people systematically killed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany during World War II – six million Jews, many Roma, the disabled, and others – as well as victims of later genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Darfur.

Now, leading British Jews have warned there are chilling similarities between contemporary events in China’s northwest Xinjiang province, where there is mounting evidence of a state-orchestrated campaign of repression against the Uighurs, and those historic tragedies.

According to the United Nations, at least one million Uighurs, a mostly Muslim minority, have been detained in internment camps in the Xinjiang region, which borders eight countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Mia Hasenson-Gross, executive director of the Jewish human rights organisation Rene Cassin, said China was effectively attempting to “eradicate” the Uighur language, culture and tradition.

“Rather than allowing this to escalate to the point where the Uighur will become another people whose genocide we remember in [the] future, we have the opportunity now to prevent that from happening,” Hasenson-Gross told Al Jazeera.

“Holocaust Memorial Day is designed to remind us of the atrocities that can happen and the important lessons we need to learn from the early stages of indifference and complicity that enabled these final acts of physical destruction,” she said

‘Grievous horror’ in Xinjiang

In the build-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, Rene Cassin co-hosted an interfaith event on Monday to highlight the Uighurs’ plight.

Uighur advocate Ziba Murat, who participated, said it was “incredibly meaningful [to] recognise our suffering”.

Murat’s mother, a Uighur doctor, was sentenced to 20 years in jail in China in March 2019 after disappearing six months earlier.

Gulshan Abbas was officially sentenced on terrorism-related charges, but relatives say she was jailed because of family members’ human rights activism in the United States.

“It is bittersweet to see the situation acknowledged for the grievous horror that it is,” Murat told Al Jazeera, adding she did not “know for certain” whether her mother was still alive.

“It’s so hard to be recognising that things have built to this point, but it’s important to acknowledge how the international community is failing the mandate of ‘never again’,” she said.

Murat warned of a “dire future” for China’s Uighur population unless other countries stop conducting “business as usual” with Beijing and instead press for closing the internment camps.

“Our entire ethnic identity and very lives have been targeted, that is the meaning of genocide,” she said. “Any government who cares about human rights and human dignity must bring these horrific abuses and those missing Uighurs to any dialogue with China going forward.”

Other events drawing attention to the issue in line with this year’s commemoration include a special ceremony at the West London Synagogue on Wednesday.

“We believe that, as survivors of intolerance, persecution and ultimately genocide, and as ‘speakers by experience’ … we have both the moral authority and with it the moral duty to act,” Hasenson-Gross said.

‘One cannot stand silently by’

Jonathan Wittenberg, the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism in the UK, said Beijing was in effect executing a “deliberate state-sponsored policy to destroy” the Uighurs through its treatment of the minority group.

“One cannot stand silently by while such things happen in the world,” Wittenberg, whose parents fled Nazi Germany as refugees, told Al Jazeera after taking part in Monday night’s interfaith event.

“This is about our shared common humanity, and that’s a call to us all,” he said. “There’s something very important about not letting persecutors feel as though they have the power to do anything they like.”

Critics of Xinjiang’s internment camps, including the UK government, say inmates at the network of facilities have been subjected to human rights violations including arbitrary detention, forced labour, torture and forced sterilisation, among others.

China denies those accusations and claims the camps are “re-education” centres. Chinese officials have long insisted that mass “education and training” is necessary in Xinjiang in order to fight what they call the “three evil forces of extremism, separatism and terrorism”, and boost economic development there.

At the time of publication, the Chinese embassy in the UK had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

© 2021 Al Jazeera Media Network


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