By Taha Ghayyur
Since the Liberal party’s assumption of power six years ago, Global Affairs Canada has shifted away from its long-standing commitment to preserving religious freedom around the world, something our country upheld for many years. In fact, in 2015, the Conservative government led the establishment of the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which brought together over 30 countries and international organizations to promote and safeguard global religious freedoms.
There are several current examples of religious freedoms being endangered around the globe, but the genocide of Uyghur Muslims is one of the most serious human rights violations in recent history. Canada has failed to provide the leadership on this issue that the rest of the world expects of it, despite the fact that this tragedy is intimately connected to such Canadians as Huseyin Celil.
In 1994, Celil, then an imam and an Uyghur rights activist, used a megaphone to project the Muslim call to prayer in his home in East Turkestan, otherwise known as Chinese-controlled Xinjiang. His actions would set the stage for China’s long-standing persecution of Muslim religious leaders, criminalization of religious rites, and deliberate demolition of significant mosques throughout the region.
His actions would set the stage for China's long-standing persecution of Muslim religious leaders
Following his public call to prayer and an imprisonment of 48 days, Celil fled East Turkestan; his journey led him from Uzbekistan through Turkey and finally to Canada. Celil was granted refugee status by the United Nations in 2001, and became a Canadian citizen in 2005.
In 2006, Celil and his wife and three children traveled to Uzbekistan to visit her family. At the request of the Chinese police, Celil was arrested and returned to China.
An investigation by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and Justice For All (JFA), which studied the whereabouts of 1,046 Turkic religious figures in East Turkestan, shed some light on China’s deafening silence on Celil’s now 15-year imprisonment. Out of 304 trials of Uyghur imams, 25 percent of them were sentenced to 20 or more years in jail, with some receiving life sentences. All data, however, suggested a high frequency of Chinese state-directed abuse.
Uyghur religious leaders have been persecuted for decades for “demonstrating resistance” by merely leading prayer gatherings and serving as imams, according to the report. Celil’s choices to serve his community as an imam and to teach the culture and language of his Indigenous people violated laws prohibiting public displays of religion, resulting in the all-too-common experiences that have prompted Uyghur leaders to flee torture and detention, leaving behind their children and families. Since the 1980s, there has been a steady increase in the number of arrests of Uyghur imams and civil rights activists.
Today, details of Celil’s life exist across scattered testimonies from those who knew him personally. Described as “calm and humble” by his spouse, Kamila Talendibaeva, Celil remains the embodiment of China’s legacy of targeting Uyghur imams and intellectuals through ever-expanding concentric systems of transnational repression.
After turning a blind eye to the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China, Global Affairs Canada should re-evaluate its priorities in light of the historic release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from China’s cells, beginning with obtaining Celil’s freedom, and followed by joining the international community’s protest against the Uyghur genocide.
As part of its election campaign pledge, the Liberal party made a commitment to place the promotion of democracy, human rights and rule of law at the forefront of our foreign policy — something that the past four foreign ministers have failed to accomplish.
In a recent meeting with France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Canada’s newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly expressed a shared desire for more collaboration between the two countries to address the rise of authoritarianism and the decline in global human rights.
It’s now up to Minister Joly to back this desire for a peaceful world with decisive action by reviving Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion. This must start with bold leadership to bring Celil home and advocate for Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities persecuted around the world.
[Taha Ghayyur is the executive director of Justice for All Canada, a non-profit human rights and advocacy organization based in Toronto. This op-ed was originally published in the National Post].