MANHATTAN — A new book by Pope Francis holds two words deserving deep gratitude from persecuted Muslims, said an immigrant from China-controlled East Turkestan at a recent protest against the communist government.
Mir-Aziz Baihadjaev, a Brooklyn businessman, is a member of the Uyghur minority of East Turkestan, one of China’s autonomous regions.
He came to a park near the United Nations on Dec. 10 to join protestors from Southern Mongolia, Hong Kong, Tibet, Kazakhstan, and Taiwan with fellow Uyghurs. Together, with pro-Democracy Chinese protestors, they railed against government crackdowns on friends and family in their homelands. Several called for the independence of their regions from China.
The alleged abuses include restrictions on religious freedom and violent policies that some U.S. officials say are no less than “genocide.”
Pope Francis referred to this persecution in his book, “Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.” The Holy Father includes “poor Uyghurs” among people attacked by groups or governments because of their religious beliefs. The book arrived in stores on Dec. 1.
“I think often,” he wrote, “of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uyghurs, the Yazidi — what ISIS did to them was truly cruel — or Christians in Egypt and Pakistan killed by bombs that went off while they prayed in church.”
The Pope’s recognition of Uyghurs won enduring thanks from Baihadjaev.
“I think it’s an amazing thing,” he said. “I am really thankful to him personally, and I believe I will express the gratitude of all my people for raising awareness.”
Critics of the pope’s dealings with China, including some Chinese Catholics, wished he would have pushed back more against the government’s insistence on appointing Catholic bishops in China.
Baihadjaev said he is aware of what he called “state-run bishops,” and he has empathy for Chinese Catholics.
But, he added, Pope Francis, “sees what’s going on, and he sees the main evil, regardless of what group it is targeted against.”
The Pope’s inclusion of Uyghurs among other groups drew instant attention from journalists worldwide. Many reported it was the first time he had referred to religious persecution in East Turkestan.
That, in turn, caused an uproar in Beijing. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declared the Pope’s remarks had “no factual basis at all.”
Members of the U.S. Senate have said they’ve seen information that suggests otherwise. The Committee on Foreign Relations introduced a resolution to that effect on Oct. 27. This bipartisan measure is co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
According to the committee, the Chinese Communist Party since 2017 “has detained an estimated 1.8 million Turkic Muslims, mostly Uyghurs, in internment camps without due process.”
The committee also noted that “Detained Uyghurs are tortured, coerced to disavow their religious beliefs and cultural practices, compelled to work in forced labor programs, and, in some cases, raped, subjected to involuntary sterilization, and forced organ harvesting.”
The resolution would hold China accountable under the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. If approved by Congress and the President, it would start coordinating an international response to stop the persecution.
“There can be no question that the People’s Republic of China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs,” Menendez said. “Stopping a genocide is consistent with our national security and our values, and it starts by standing up and speaking the truth.”
The protest was held on Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, a short distance from the U.N. Headquarters building. The event was organized by the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of New York & New Jersey.
It coincided with the United Nations observing Human Rights Day, which happens each year on Dec. 10 to commemorate the date in 1948 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Tenzin Nordon, a spokeswoman for the local Tibetan Youth Congress, was among many speakers at the multicultural event that featured chanting, colorful flags, posters, and signage.
Nordon urged the United Nations to “call out the Chinese government for its authoritarian practices of censorship and repression which led to the (COVID-19) pandemic that has now brought the entire world to a standstill.”
“It is high time,” she added, “the United Nations and international community reject the Chinese government’s model of surveillance and repression” that all the groups represented at the protest “have suffered under for so long.”
Gani Stambek, president and founder of New York-based FreeKazakhs, urged everyone to stay strong and not give up on seceding from the People’s Republic of China. He recounted how many Kazakhs have died fighting for that goal.
“This is a price which our nation has to pay to have independence,” Stambek shouted. “Don’t give up and keep fighting!”