Religious freedom is a universal freedom, grounded in the rights of conscience. Though it is true that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, they are not the only ones experiencing intense persecution. Join Scott as he interviews Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur Muslim, who will tell you about the experience of her people in China today, where she estimates that close to 3 million Uyghur Muslims are held in the equivalent of concentration camps in China today. Though you will not agree with everything that Rushan holds to theologically, there is common ground in our mutual desire to stand for religious freedom around the world.

Rushan Abbas is Founder and Executive Director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, headquartered in Washington DC.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics. We have a very special guest today, someone who does not usually come on our podcast, but a very special and important guest. She is a Uyghur Muslim who hails from China. Her name is Rushan Abbas. She is the executive director of an organization called The Campaign for Uyghurs.

Scott Rae: This is highlighting a situation that has a significant bearing on religious freedom around the world. The Uyghur Muslims are a group of a substantial but minority group in mainland China, and they are currently the object of intense persecution by the Chinese government. There are roughly... [inaudible 00:00:55] will tell us there are roughly two to three million Uyghur Muslims imprisoned in what she will refer to as concentration camps today.

Scott Rae: The reason we are posting this now is because on December the 6th of 2021, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, which will start in February of 2022 and have been joined by the United Kingdom, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand in this diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, mainly revolving around the Chinese government human rights abuses, and particularly the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims.

Scott Rae: I think you'll find her account very compelling and is something that we all ought to be a part of as we campaign and hope and pray for religious freedom around the world. Since she is Muslim, there will be a few things that we may not entirely agree on theologically so we have some theological differences. Be aware of that as you listen to her very compelling story.

Rushan Abbas: Thank you, Scott, for giving this opportunity to talk about this active genocide against my people. As you said, I am an [inaudible 00:02:15]. I was born and raised in [inaudible 00:02:19] which we call by this historical and this symbolic name, but it's being called [foreign language 00:02:26] by the Chinese regime, which means new territory or new border.

Scott Rae: And in what general part of the country is it?

Rushan Abbas: It's located in north west corner of China, which is north of Tibet and west of Mongolia.

Scott Rae: Okay. And tell us a little bit about what you're doing here in the United States.

Rushan Abbas: I came to United States in 1989 as a graduate student after I studied biology in [inaudible 00:03:02] University. But even back then, because of my involvement and the... Organizing the pro-democracy protests against the Chinese Communist regime in 1985 and in 1988, which is [inaudible 00:03:23] square protests, 1989. When I graduated the university, the Chinese regime retaliated with my activism even back then.

Rushan Abbas: And I couldn't get any job. Also, I was graduated as a second highest score in the university in the biology department and I was sent to this [inaudible 00:03:52] university to work there. But right after the Chinese Communist Party involved with my background and they talked to the agricultural university, they wouldn't accept me. And I just couldn't find a job anywhere so my father, who was one of the elites intellectual back then, he arranged with some of his colleagues in United States, a couple professors from Washington State University, sent me abroad. I came back then and then I witnessed three weeks later, [inaudible 00:04:40] in United States.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Rushan Abbas: While I was in United States, when China...

Scott Rae: What was that like watching that on television?

Rushan Abbas: Horrifying for us, because especially for me, I had my childhood friends there at the protest. And I know those young students are all innocent and all they want is just they want democracy. They want freedom just like what we did just few years prior to that. Watching those innocent students and they're Chinese students, they're their own children.

Rushan Abbas: Of course, I understand the way that they treat us as secondary citizens because we are so-called minorities there. Also, we are indigenous people of our homeland then after Chinese government occupied because of the implementation of very strict birth controls and because of all the suppressive policies and using different labels, prosecuting people, our population became less and less compared to the Chinese [inaudible 00:05:55] settlers moved there after the occupation.

Rushan Abbas: But still just watching how brutally they could crash and they shoot and kill those young, innocent students. That just explains the world. How a terror... What kind of barbaric regime this Chinese Communist regime is.

Scott Rae: If you were trying to get out of the country today, would you be able to?

Rushan Abbas: As an Uyghur, no. Absolutely not because all the Uyghur people's passports are being canceled and they pressured, the Chinese regime, pressured the parents of students who are studying abroad, asking them to come back. It's not just that the Chinese regime is conducting genocide in our homeland and they're also trying to get every single Uyghur out there in [inaudible 00:07:01], tried to bring them in. Every one of them who went back, they disappeared or killed.

Rushan Abbas: For example, [inaudible 00:07:11] one of the very smart scholar who studied in Boston and in Northern California had two master's degrees and he went back because they called him back, he and his wife, and two young children who were born in the United States. Right after he went back, they arrested him, put him in the camps. And then four days after he was released, he died because when he was released, he was already half dead because of torture.

Scott Rae: Yes. You used the term genocide to describe how the Chinese government is treating the Uyghur people today. What makes you use that term because that's a pretty serious term and is much more significant than just a group undergoing persecution. What makes you say that there's a genocide going on?

Rushan Abbas: Accordance with the Geneva Convention 1948 treaty there's five acts. If any one of these acts are happening to a certain group of people, then you can call it genocide. And back home right now all five of them are happening. For example, number one, persecuting certain group of people because of their background because of their religion or their ethnicity bring physical or mental harm while the Chinese regime is holding more than three million Uyghur people, innocent Uyghur people, in the concentration camps, going through indoctrination. They are facing torture, mental, physical, sexual abuse so that's violating the one of them.

Rushan Abbas: And the other one is birth control policies. The Uyghur women, they have absolutely no rights to their own bodies. The Uyghur women's bodies are being violated in the most horrific ways. They are facing forced abortions, forced sterilizations, forced IUD devices inserting their bodies and forced to marry [inaudible 00:09:42] Chinese people. If these Uyghur girls or women refuse such a... The government sponsored marriages, which Chinese government is offering those [inaudible 00:09:55] Chinese men to marry Uyghur women while the government offering them housing, jobs and the money to encourage such a... Yeah, such marriages. If the Uyghur women say no, then they will be labeled as radicalized Islamic extremists who didn't want to marry non-Muslim [inaudible 00:10:20] Chinese. The girl has no choice but marrying him or going to the concentration camps being labeled as Islamic...

Scott Rae: Yeah. That's quite a choice. [crosstalk 00:10:31]

Rushan Abbas: Yeah... extremist.

Scott Rae: Okay.

Rushan Abbas: That's another act. Another important one is children. The Geneva Convention clearly states that if you remove the children from certain group and sent to somewhere else, that is a part of a genocide. There is a document about 900,000, more than 900,000 Uyghur children are taken away from their homes, sent to state fund government orphanages, where they are being raised with forbidding their religion, their language, their cultural ethnic, any kind of identity. Basically, when there's targeted actions by the Chinese regime in the intent of eradicating the Uyghur people so that is genocide.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now, tell us a little bit about what life is like for people who have been consigned to the camps. What's daily life like there for them?

Rushan Abbas: According to... Well, let me go back a little bit on this. I have been speaking about those camps, conditions of the camps, for years now, since the concentration camps came up to the public civil news media through satellite images and also Chinese governments [inaudible 00:12:13] documents. I have been saying that the people are facing forced indoctrinations and the torture and malnutrition and dehydration, they are not getting enough to drink, overcrowded rooms. And they are forced to take unknown medications and they are forced to recite [inaudible 00:12:37] thoughts and the pledging themself to the Chinese Communist ideologies and all that.

Rushan Abbas: Last month, back in June, early June, I was in UK, in London, testifying at the [inaudible 00:12:55] where I heard from the former inmates who actually lived in those concentration camps and the witnesses and the experts and the scholars who has been studying the camps and the systems and what kind of policies the Chinese regime is implementing and also the perpetrator himself, a Chinese former policeman, Chinese man, admitted actually... Said that when they brought those [inaudible 00:13:35] Chinese policemen to any kind of place that Uyghur are in captivity, they have been told to do whatever they want against them: the torture, the brutal, the inhumane, the treatment they are doing against Uyghurs.

Rushan Abbas: When he was talking, it was horrifying to listen because my sister is there. My sister was taken, my own sister was taken almost three years ago. I spoke at the Hudson Institute on September 5th, 2018 to talk about the conditions of the camps and China's genocidal crimes against the Uyghur people while outlining the fate of my in-laws. My husband's entire family was taken. My parent-in-laws and the three of his sisters, their husbands, a brother, and his wife, 14 of his nieces and the nephews from eight, three to 18, all that...

Scott Rae: All taken to the camps. [crosstalk 00:14:53] They're gone.

Rushan Abbas: They're all taken to the camps. We have no idea where they are.

Scott Rae: Do you know even if they're alive?

Rushan Abbas: We don't know. We have no idea. I talked about this and then six days later as a retaliation for my speech in America, as an American citizen who has been living in America for past 32 years, my own sister was taken to silence me. It was a clear indication from the Chinese government to keep me quiet.

Rushan Abbas: Today I am talking here at the sacrifice of my sister's freedom. It's almost three years. We have no idea where she is. I don't even know if she's still alive. She's a retired medical doctor and she retired in early age because of the health reasons. With that kind of condition, I have no idea if she's making it.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Rushan Abbas: And we don't don't even know where she's being held.

Scott Rae: Now. Are you in danger personally?

Rushan Abbas: Well, I live in this free country and as I said, I am an American citizen, so I don't think they can do anything to me. But even if I am in danger, I have to speak. I have to speak not only to be the voice for those voiceless Uyghur people there, but to educate my fellow Americans, to educate the world about the Chinese regime's war against faith, war against humanity, war against freedom and democracy, because it's not just about the future of the Uyghurs or saving the Uyghurs anymore.

Rushan Abbas: It's about the conscience of the world. The humanity of the world is a test here and the [inaudible 00:16:52] of people and most the places, especially the corporations, places like NBA and Hollywood and the other entities, they are failing it because of the Chinese blood money that they're making from the Uyghur slaves.

Scott Rae: And we'll come back to that in just a second. Tell me a little bit about the response of the countries in the west to the plight of the Uyghur people because I think it's just... It's been only recently that this has come to more widespread attention, at least in the United States, if not the other Western countries. When you travel and speak in other parts of the west and the US, what's the response of the countries of the west?

Rushan Abbas: It's good now because more people are aware of what the Chinese regime is doing. And especially former secretary [inaudible 00:17:51] announced that... He determined that this is a genocide and then the current Secretary of State, Mr. Blinken, also concurred that decision. And in Washington sometimes people joke that they say the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, they cannot even agree upon what the brand coffee they drink at the cafeteria at the hill but this one issue, [crosstalk 00:18:20] all agree on that is about China's crimes against humanity and what they're doing to the Uyghur Muslims.

Rushan Abbas: But we didn't get to this point very easily. As in, we were American who has been living in this country for past 32 years, I had been trying to raise this awareness about China's oppression administration, after administration, after administration for years.

Rushan Abbas: But because very naively our politicians thought that we can make China rich and then they will receive democracy, will come democracy. But no, the more economically stronger they got, more they start to challenge the basic human dignity and the democracy. And now they are saying that they are going to kill the democracy while using the democracy. They are using our systems to manipulate and undermine all this values that the Americans worked so hard in the past 50 years, in the past hundred years.

Rushan Abbas: When I travel around the world, again, I see a lot of people still buying the Chinese Communist Party's talking points, still believing that engaging China or bring China to more democratic... Bring China to more democratic, open society, open systems, that's not going to happen. If the Chinese Communist Party is in place, that's not going to happen because when I was being raised and educated there, clearly the government used to tell us that last century was a century of humiliation.

Rushan Abbas: And this century is century of retaliation for them. Retaliation against who? Not against Uyghur [inaudible 00:20:30] Mongolians, it is the retaliation against the west. They want to replace the democratic system with the totalitarian vision that they have with this ultra nationalistic, the Chinese Communist ideology.

Scott Rae: What are some of the things that the United States is doing that you're aware of to pressure China into more of a recognition of human rights of Uyghur people and other minorities in China?

Rushan Abbas: There has been very aggressive sanctions has been in place, which is really good because we need to hit where it hurts the most, the money. Economic sanctions always good, and it will work. And then we had to Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which was passed and designed by the president and they became law last year. And there is a Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that's voted at the Senate and then now the house has to pass that, but it's not enough. There are a lot of talks, but we need actual tangible actions.

Scott Rae: Are other countries in the west joining in, or is Britain, France, Germany, are other powerful Western European countries joining the US in this?

Rushan Abbas: There are some countries, yes. They pass the resolution or determination on genocide. They call that it's recognized that it's genocide. And also there has been some actions, but then again, it's not enough. Especially Germany is a disappointing part for me because Germany has already this dark history of experiencing the genocide and this is supposed to be an opportunity for German government to respect the never again, the vow never again, and should have been stop all kind of business deals with China because right now supporting China in any way is supporting the genocide, is complicit with China's genocide.

Rushan Abbas: It's disappointing, but we really need to work hard because the Chinese Communist regime is using the manipulation in United Nations as the second largest donor and the power of the Belt and Road Initiative and that's actually the main reason why we [inaudible 00:23:32] genocide because our homeland sits in the epicenter of this [inaudible 00:23:37] signature project, Belt and Road Initiative, which is his signature project for the world domination.

Rushan Abbas: And then certainly using the [inaudible 00:23:47] diplomacy from the many countries and using the trade as threats to many countries, Chinese government is basically getting away with genocide. Not just getting away with genocide, they are getting rewarded. When you look at what the Olympic Committee, International Olympic Committee is doing. Having China host 2022 Winter Olympics, I am appalled. I am speechless. We all know what happened in 1936 in Berlin when Nazi Germany was running concentration camps right in the middle of the Holocaust, the world community supported that, the International Olympic Committee rewarded Nazi Germany then kept apologizing for what happened.

Rushan Abbas: But they tried to claim... Also they know what was happening, but they tried to claim the ignorance then. But this is 21st century. They know what's happening. We kept contacting the International Olympic Committee asking them to strip off the hosting rights from China because a genocide of regime is the last country to qualify to hold Olympic games which is a prestigious game built upon the differences of the humanity. Different race, different religion... [crosstalk 00:25:13]

Scott Rae: With the goal of bringing the world together.

Rushan Abbas: Yes, exactly. Chinese government is holding over three million people in concentration camps. They're conducting crimes against humanity. They are conducting genocide because of one race because of their ethnicity and their religion and you reward China. And then when we contact the Olympic Committee say, oh, we have to stay away from politics. Which part of this is politics?

Scott Rae: Right.

Rushan Abbas: Mass rape of Uyghur women. [crosstalk 00:25:47] Yeah.

Scott Rae: Genocide shouldn't be considered politics.

Rushan Abbas: Politics. Exactly. Exactly. The Chinese government tried to claim, always say that this is China's internal business. No, genocide against the one group of people is not a country's internal affair.

Scott Rae: You say three million Uyghur people are held in concentration camps. What percentage is that of the Uyghur population in China?

Rushan Abbas: If you look at the Chinese consensus, the Chinese numbers, of course they try to show the Uyghurs are minority by showing less 12 million population so 3 million of 12 million.

Scott Rae: Okay, so 25%.

Rushan Abbas: Yeah. But then according to the Uyghur people, the population is more than that, 15 to 20 million, but even that's pretty high percent.

Scott Rae: What is life like for the Uyghur people who are not in the camps? It can't be much less difficult.

Rushan Abbas: Many people are familiar with George Orwell's 1984, that in the worst case, because that was a vision written long time ago. And now with the high advanced technology the Chinese regime has even just the regular ordinary people, just everybody out there they're subject to DNA collection. Everybody has to mandatory DNA collection, mandatory health check, and they surveillance everywhere, checkpoints on every corner, QR scanning codes on every home.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Rushan Abbas: People coming in and out is being monitored.

Scott Rae: I read just recently that there are almost 700 million surveillance cameras in China, and I'm not quite sure what you would do with that many cameras except have full-time watchers for a lot of people under surveillance. Continue... What...

Rushan Abbas: And the worst part of this is it's not staying in China. This system is not staying in China. They are already exporting to many other countries. Just two years ago before the pandemic started, we had been told more than 18 countries around the world exported the surveillance system. And this is going to make a lot of other dictatorship countries to welcome and adopt for their way of oppressing the people.

Rushan Abbas: And the worst part is the Chinese regime is openly announcing in their state media they are going to rewrite the Bible and the Holy Quran to accordance with the Chinese Communist ideologies. How in the world, any kind of religion, Bible, Quran... [crosstalk 00:29:03] Yeah. Will be compatible with Chinese atheist's ideology?

Scott Rae: [inaudible 00:29:08] atheist.

Rushan Abbas: Right. Exactly. When they openly announced that, where's the outreach? Where's the outreach from people around the world? Where's the outreach from the Muslim community? When one priest in Florida announced that he was going to burn a copy of Quran, the entire Muslim world went on the streets. Well, China is burning the Uyghur Muslims right now.

Rushan Abbas: [inaudible 00:29:37] crematoria is being built next to the concentration camps. Where's the outrage from the Muslims? And every single, every little social injustice used to get outrage from all these famous celebrities in Hollywood. Where are they? Where are the feminists when the Uyghur women's body is being violated the way that...

Scott Rae: Good question. [crosstalk 00:30:02]

Rushan Abbas: ... on scene, anywhere. Uyghur children are taken away. Where are those famous celebrities? When the perpetrator has money and the power, you just comply?

Scott Rae: [inaudible 00:30:13], one more question for you, given that all of us have an interest in global religious freedom, regardless of the faith, you're Muslim, I'm Christian. We have some obvious differences theologically, but I think we both share the desire to see people have freedom of conscience, to be able believe and to practice their faith in whatever way they see fit.

Scott Rae: And so any threat to religious freedom in one place is a threat to religious freedom all over the world. What, if anything, are you encouraged about as you go around and speak on religious freedom and you just continue to learn about the plight of your Uyghur people. Is there anything that gives you hope?

Rushan Abbas: You speaking to me actually gives me hope. Yes. I met a lot of organizations, the interface groups and the leaders from different [inaudible 00:31:34] because the world is so big and we are all humans, basic dignity of humans, basic rights of the fundamental choice of what you believe, how you believe and why you believe is the basic, basic rights of the humans, human rights, the basis of the human rights. And I see a lot of people respecting that.

Rushan Abbas: And people don't have to be Uyghur or activists to raise this issue, because this is not about the Muslim issue or the Uyghur issue. This is about the conscience of humanity. I see a lot of great people and still supporting the Uyghur cause and they are preparing platforms for us and they are helping us, that really gives me hope and the warmness in my heart that humanity is not dead. So many great people, that's why this world is so wonderful.

Rushan Abbas: The Chinese regime is not going to win as long as there are people who believe right and evil because this is a battle between what's right and what's wrong, the oppression and the freedom. This is a battle between the evil and the good. And I believe the majority of the people in the world are good people.

Rushan Abbas: [inaudible 00:33:17] as if they all stand up and they educate people around them, share the information and stop this, the evil regime, before it's too late, we will win. I don't believe that China is so powerful that they can just manipulate the entire world for too long. They have done it because we always trusted them. And I think more and more people are seeing for the real, the barbaric, the terroristic regime and I believe that we will win. And I do have a hope that this Chinese Communist regime will be demolished. That's all I have, the hope. If I don't have hope, I cannot continue so thank you for giving this opportunity to speak. [crosstalk 00:34:17]

Scott Rae: [inaudible 00:34:17], thank you so much. This has been enlightening and chilling and discouraging and a little bit hopeful here at the end. I know our listeners probably can't do much immediately except for one thing. And I know that they can pray.

Rushan Abbas: Yes.

Scott Rae: They can pray for the Uyghur people.

Rushan Abbas: Please.

Scott Rae: Pray for human rights and for religious freedom to be recognized.

Rushan Abbas: Yes.

Scott Rae: And it's not an accident that the American Bill of Rights places religious freedom as the first amendment.

Rushan Abbas: Yes.

Scott Rae: The first, most fundamental freedom because it does, as you describe it, it does give people that freedom of conscience to believe what they choose, what they believe to be true. Even though we have a faith difference, we have very much in common.

Rushan Abbas: We all pray the same. Yes. [crosstalk 00:35:13]

Scott Rae: Very much in common when it comes to this matter of religious freedom.

Rushan Abbas: Yes. Please... We all call the God in different names, but we are all children of God. If the Chinese regime thought that they can eradicate the Uyghurs, God has its own plans. Just pray for the Uyghur Muslims. Thank you.

Scott Rae: Let me give people your website, your organization. [inaudible 00:35:43] is the founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, That's We really encourage you to get better and better informed, better acquainted with what's going on and to continue to pray for the human rights and religious freedom, not only of the Uyghur, but for persecuted minorities all over the world who are persecuted on account of their faith.

Rushan Abbas: Thank you, Scott.

Scott Rae: [inaudible 00:36:16], thank you so much. This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.