The Turkish government has upset Chinese diplomats after Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed “deep concern” over efforts in China to eliminate the observation of the holy month of Ramadan and bans in particular on Communist Party members fasting during the day, as is traditional during the holiday.
“Our people have been saddened over the news that Uighur Turks have been banned from fasting or carrying out other religious duties in the Xinjiang region,” read an official Turkish Foreign Ministry statement issued Tuesday. “Our deep concern over these reports have been conveyed to China’s ambassador in Ankara,” it added. Cavusoglu stated personally that Uyghurs, who are ethnically Turkic people, are “important to us, [and] we declare our connection with them in every occasion.” He added that he had told his Chinese counterparts that it was “very natural for us to react against a human rights violation [in western China] when it happens.”
Turkey’s state publication Andalou Agency notes that Chinese Uyghurs constitute around 45% of the population of western Xinjiang province, China, and that they are ethnically and culturally related to the Turkish people.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has responded to these statements with their own “concern”: “China has already demanded that Turkey clarify these reports and we have expressed concern about the statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry,” said Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying. “You should know that all the people of Xinjiang enjoy the freedom of religious belief accorded to them by the Chinese constitution,” she told reporters.
Today, Chinese state media outlet Xinhua published a commentary piece criticizing Turkey’s reported plans to engage militarily in Syria to prevent both the continued growth of the Islamic State and the establishment of Kurdish military forces in the area, which Turkish officials have long seen as a threat, given their desire to establish a sovereign Kurdistan.
The Chinese government has endeavored to suppress Xinjiang’s Muslim heritage in the past two years, particularly in light of a number of terrorist attacks attributed to Uyghur separatists and propaganda by the Islamic State urging Muslim Chinese nationals to join the Caliphate and help establish a foothold for it in Asia. China issued an order before the beginning of Ramadan this year banning public fasting and forcing businesses to sell food during the day, even if Muslim-owned. Communist Party officials were warned with especial concern to forgo the holiday. Last year, China banned long beards and “Islamic garb” on public transportation, claiming it a necessary move to keep terrorists from attacking buses and trains. The burqa quickly followed, officially banned throughout Xinjiang in January. China has also forced Xinjiang shops to sell cigarettes and at least five different kinds of alcohol, both banned by Sharia law.
Turkey has routinely expressed a vested interest in the rights of Uyghurs to practice Islam. As The Wall Street Journal notes, many Turks consider Uyghurs a part of the larger Turkic family and have urged the government to speak out for them. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a member of the nation’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), called government repression of a Uyghur riot in 2009 “genocide,” significantly damaging Turkish-Chinese relations. Erdogan is expected to visit China later this year.