The Olympic Committee Ignored the Uyghurs. This Church Didn't | Sojourners

The Olympic Committee Ignored the Uyghurs. This Church Didn't

The flag of East Turkestan and the Uyghur people. Credit: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

As the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing wound to a close in a ceremony of flags, fireworks, and an LED screen designed to look like ice, one Seattle-area church marked the end of the international games with a very different kind of event: a meal and listening session with members of the Uyghur community in and around Edmonds, Wa.

The Practicing Church, a Vineyard congregation, organized the event on Feb. 20 in protest of the Chinese government's ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people and the failure of the International Olympics Committee to acknowledge China’s abuses against this predominantly Muslim minority group.

The event, held at Holy Trinity Edmonds, included a halal meal and featured Uyghur speakers who lived in or have family members in the Xinjiang region, known among Uyghurs as East Turkestan.

One Uyghur woman, who spoke to the gathering and agreed to be quoted on the condition of anonymity, said that communication with her family who live in Xinjiang came to a halt at the end of 2017.

“My sister told me, ‘Don't call us. If it is an emergency, we can call you,’” she told the gathering.

She shared stories of torture and other abuses that happen within the concentration camps that have been built by the Chinese government within the region, including accounts of gang-rape, forced sterlization, and allegations of organ harvesting. She said Uyghur children have been taken from their parents, placed into government-sanctioned orphanages, and are being “brainwashed” while their parents are detained in the camps.

Bill Clark, an organizer of the event and a member of the Practicing Church, lived in Xinjiang with his wife, Julie, and taught English for over a decade in the region. He joined the Practicing Church and brought the Uyghur genocide to the community’s attention.

“Part of why I am doing this and part of why Julie and I are advocating for the Uyghur people is that their voices have been cut off … but we can speak and so we are speaking for them and saying, ‘This is not right what the Chinese government has done to the Uyghur people.”

The Uyghur American Association, an organization dedicated to preserving the rights of the Uyghur people, estimates that the Uyghur population in the United States is between 8,000 and 10,000 people.

In a 2019 investigation that uncovered more than 400 internal Chinese documents, The New York Times estimated that as many as one million Uyghurs had been detained in government-run detention camps in Xinjiang, China.

In her testimony at the event, the woman said that Uyghurs outside the region are “psychologically broken.”

“We do not know what to do; we used to be so proud of our culture, so proud of ourselves,” she said. “They are strong people facing … inhumane treatment.”

She described the unease of not knowing whether their family members are given sufficient meals or if they are even alive.

“I know China is brutal. They can harm [Uyghurs], they are powerful, but we have the power to speak the truth. Please spread awareness,” she said.

Clark spoke about Burton Snowboards, a winter sports company that has continued to do business in Xinjiang despite the reports of genocide in that region.

In a BBC interview, Craig Smith, the CEO of Burton China, said the snowboarding company can “either divorce ourselves from Xinjiang and say, 'No, we’re not going to do anything out there.' Or, what we can do is we can try to understand what's going on in Xinjiang better.”

Clark said Smith’s remarks were “a clear admission of profits over people,” he said. “We think that is immoral, it is unethical, and it should be pushed back against.”

Clark criticized Burton for ignoring activists, like Clark, who have sent letters about their concerns. Clark called on guests of the event to sign an open letter to Burton to let the company know there are people who care about this issue.

“People were really curious and were here with sincerity to find out who the Uyghurs are and what their experience has been,” Clark told Sojourners after the event ended. “It is an honor to have been part of it.”

Josh Blay, an attendee of the event and a member of Overlake Church in Redmond, Wa., did his graduate thesis on Uyghur advocacy at Northwest University.

Blay said that he and his wife attended the event so she could hear in-person testimony from a Uyghur who has been impacted by the actions taking place in China. Blay had previously attended events held by the Practicing Church and members of the Uyghur community.

“Tonight was not only about the church elevating the voice of the Uyghurs and the power we have to speak up when injustice is happening in our world, but it is also about allowing the voice of the suffering to be heard and lament, sit in that suffering, and let it impact us,” said Blay.

Blay said that hearing the stories and testimonies of people with family, friends, and children who are experiencing genocide allows individuals to empathize more directly.

“We get to sit with that and let it weigh on us and leave us in a place of sadness and grief,” Blay said. “Hopefully, that grief and sadness move us to action.”