It is not lost on Jewher Ilham that her life in the United States allows her the freedom to do what led to her losing her father Ilham Tohti.
“It means a lot to me and my family that the State Department is prioritizing religious freedom,” Ilham said in remarks made on Tuesday at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC. “My father Ilham Tohti is in a Chinese prison serving a life sentence because he chose to speak out about what he believes are basic, essential human rights — the right to believe what you believe; the right to worship the way you want to worship; the right to think what you want to think.”
His crime, Ilham said, was “speaking openly about what was happening to Uighurs in China” – more than 1 million fellow Muslim Uighurs who have been forced into what the communist regime euphemistically calls “re-education camps.”
But the truth, Ilham said, is that the Chinese are holding Uighurs in concentration camps where some are tortured and killed. Others are the victims of organ harvesting.
“They harvest prisoners’ organs for sale,” Ilhan said. “At the airport, there is now a fast track security lane for organs to pass.”
“That’s how common this is,” Ilham said.
In her remarks, she recalled being at the Beijing airport with her father in 2013. The pair were heading to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where Ilham Tohti was to spend one year as a visiting scholar.
Instead of taking that trip together, Ilham’s father was arrested and she made the trip to Indiana on her own.
Ilham said that she has not spoken to her father since 2014 when she recalled his happiness that she was in the United States where she could practice her Muslim faith “without fear of being monitored or imprisoned.”
She has not heard about his condition since 2017 but spends much of her time advocating for her father, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his scholarly work to build a bridge between Uighurs and the Han Chinese.
Ilham has testified before Congress on the Chinese repression of Uighurs and uses her free speech rights to lobby for the release of her father and other Uighurs detained only because of their religion and culture.
“There was no such freedom for Uighurs in China — not at the school where my father was a professor, not in public, not even in a private house,” Ilham said. “Instead there are signs on the street reminding Uighurs that they are not allowed to be visibly Muslim. “
The signs have images of women wearing hijabs and men with beards “inside a red circle with a slash across their face.”
“For Uighurs, education, language, and culture are tightly woven with our religious beliefs, so when our religion is illegal, we, the Uighurs, are illegal,” Ilham said.
According to her biography on the ministerial website, Ilham’s activism includes writing a book published in 2015 entitled Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father.
Ilham graduated in May from Indiana University and is now the director of public relations for the Campaign for Uyghurs, a nonprofit organization working to advocate for the human rights and democratic freedom of the Uighurs and other Turkic ethnic minority groups in China.
In concluding her remarks, Ilhan called for the international community to demand the immediate release of the Uighur people and tied that demand to China’s place on the world stage.
“Is China really qualified to host the 2022 Winter Olympics before all the ighurs are liberated from the reeducation camps?” Ilham asked.
“Dear China. You are so strong. Then why are you so scared to let people have their own beliefs or even to know the outside world?” Ilhan said. “Is this really about extremism or is it really about control and power?”
The Chinese communists have tried to justify their treatment of the Uighurs by claiming they practice an “extremist” brand of Islam, which Ilham called “ridiculous.”
“My new purpose in life is to release my dad,” Ilhan said in a profile written about her in the Indiana University student newspaper.
“She misses him every day. Everything triggers memories of him, and every day she wants to tell him what is happening in her life. She’d like to cook for him. He’d be so proud of her pilaf,” the article said. “She just wants to sit with him. They don’t even have to do anything, maybe drink a cup of tea.”
“We may say nothing,” Ilham said. “Or maybe we say everything.”
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