Most of the estimated 11 million Uyghur in China live in the far western region of Xinjiang. Another 1.5 million Uyghur live outside of China. They are a Turkic people who trace their Muslim heritage back to the 10th century. They speak Uyghur, a Turkic language that is written using a modified Arabic script.
Though Uyghurs consider themselves Sunni Muslims, their religious observance varies widely. Prior to government pressure against the practice, women in the more conservative southern region (in and around Kashgar, a Silk Road trade center) were more likely to wear head coverings. This was less common elsewhere. The Uyghur have distinctive cuisine, clothing, and handcrafts and are well known for the muqam, a unique style of folk music employing oral epics. Education used to be available in both Uyghur and Mandarin, but education in the Uyghur language has now been stopped.
After Chairman Mao set up the People’s Republic in 1949, the area became the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Uyghur are mostly concentrated in the southwest Tarim Basin region. The millions of Han people who have settled in the region now outnumber the Uyghur.
There are several small competing Uyghur groups seeking independence. In recent decades Islamist insurgents have carried out violent attacks that have contributed to increased oppression of the Uyghur by the authorities.
Up to two million Uyghur are held in “re-education” detention camps. Mosques and mosque schools have been shut down in an effort to stifle radicalism, terrorism, and Islam-inspired insurgencies. There are widespread arbitrary arrests and invasive surveillance.
Life is getting harder at all levels for the Uyghurs in China. Their freedoms are being curtailed and their rights taken away. They are stereotyped as terrorists. China is even working with neighboring Central Asian governments to suppress Uyghurs in those countries. The people are living in fear, and since the international community appears to be ignoring their plight, there is a growing sense of despair.
There may only be about two thousand Uyghur believers in all of China. The political climate in Xinjiang makes it difficult for anyone to meet in large groups, but there are some Uyghur house fellowships across the region. Some Han believers are actively reaching out to Uyghurs, taking up the task following the recent expulsion of most expatriate workers. Despite the pressures, most Uyghur believers appear to be holding firm.
Uyghur Muslims have traditionally been open to talking about religion – more so than the Hui, for example – yet under the current crackdown, people are shying away from religious discussions. Family opposition to converts is less and less of a concern compared to government opposition to all religions.
A Uyghur translation of the New Testament has recently been completed and is available online. The Jesus Film and a few other Christian books have been translated as well. Some believers have been reaching out through the internet and social media.