Concentrated in the Xinjiang region of China, the Uighurs are an ethnic group distinct from China’s majority Han population. Muslims in a state that is militantly atheistic, they have in recent years suffered from increasing persecution. Today, of the approximately 13 million Uighurs, an estimated one million are imprisoned in concentration camps, where they are used as slave labor, starved and otherwise mistreated, and subjected to “reeducation,” hours of propaganda each day in which they are required to renounce their beliefs. The crimes for which one can be sent to such camps include wearing a hijab, growing a long beard, being a member of a family that is religiously observant, and having too many children.

China’s laws against women having more than two children – three in rural areas – are enforced ruthlessly against Uighur women, who are in many cases forced to undergo abortions and sterilization; as a result, reports the Associated Press, birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar fell by more than 60 percent between 2016 and 2018. And recently, drone video has surfaced showing Uighurs, bound and heavily guarded, apparently being herded into trains bound for these concentration camps. Confronted with the video on July 19 by BBC journalist Andrew Marr, Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming could not explain away what he was seeing. —The Editors

Uighurs at a dentention center in Xinjiang, China (Public domain)

As a human being who believes in the sanctity of human life, I am deeply troubled by what is happening to the Uighur Muslim population in China. As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people shaven-headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing. That people in the twenty-first century are being murdered, terrorized, victimized, intimidated, and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal, and a desecration of faith itself.

In 1948, in response to the horrors of the Nazi regime, the nascent United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China – the Republic of China; the People’s Republic (PRC) would not be established until the following year – was a signatory. In 1971, the PRC reaffirmed that commitment, signing the Declaration. Everyone, Article 18 declares,

has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The worldwide implementation of Article 18 remains one of the great challenges of our time. This right is too often lost when one group within a society, usually the dominant group, sees another group as a threat to its freedom and its own dominance, or when there is a struggle between the will to power and the will to life. Threat becomes fear, fear becomes hate, and hate becomes dehumanization. The Nazis called Jews vermin and lice. The Hutus of Rwanda called the Tutsis inyenzi, or cockroaches. When the world allows the dehumanization of the Other, evil follows, as night follows day.

In both these cases – in the 1930s and in the 1990s – much of the world stood by and watched, paralyzed or indifferent. Yet in both cases, there were also voices of protest with many individuals putting their own lives in danger to protect the lives of others.

Many detainees’ families have been kept in the dark about the fate of their loved ones. (Image from Amnesty International)

Today, that dehumanization is happening to the Uighur population in China. It must be challenged by the global community in the strongest possible terms. Inspired by the courage and actions of men and women who spoke up in the past, we must reaffirm a fundamental truth: that our common humanity precedes our religious differences. Lose this and we lose ourselves and our humanity. We must not allow this to happen. We must not stand by.