Uyghur believers vow to “let their light shine” at the launch of the World Uyghur Christian Union in London this month.
By Ruth Ingram
May 31, 2023
Kerim Altay, Chairman of the World Uyghur Christian Union.
Refusing to be cowed by historical persecution and the prevailing narrative that Uyghurs must be Muslim, a group of twenty-first-century Uyghur believers in Jesus Christ have launched the World Uyghur Christian Union (WUCU), with a commitment to “spread the good news of their faith to their people.”
At a conference to mark its official debut entitled, “The Uyghur Quest for the Gospel,” exiled Uyghurs set out to give Uyghur Christianity a historical context and prove that in fact, far from being a new movement, many Uyghurs in Xinjiang were Christian long before Islam set foot on the shores of their desert land.
Drawing on the expertise of archaeologists, academics, and researchers who came armed with their findings, the case was made by the visiting speakers, that Christianity was well established by 840 AD during the Uyghur kingdom of Qocho (Turpan/Beshbalik) when Uyghurs also practiced Buddhism and Manichaeism.
Benjamin Sharkey, doctoral candidate at Oxford University, presenting his research into historical Uyghur Christianity.
“Church of the East” missionaries (formerly also known as Nestorian Christians) came over the mountains to East Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, in 635 AD, having been active in other areas of Central Asia. Vestiges of churches and Christian graves were found in today’s Uzbekistan, Kirghizistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Growing amounts of archaeological evidence and hundreds of documents now being unearthed in present-day Xinjiang attest to thriving communities of Uyghur believers across the region. The church grew in the ninth century with the arrival of Persian believers from the East Syriac Church, their monastery of Bulayïq, in particular standing out in the Turpan region, from whose ruins more than 1,500 scriptures and religious commentaries have been unearthed.
Photo from a slide prepared by Benjamin Sharkey.
Christian cemeteries and churches have been found near Turpan itself in the ancient city of Gaochang, in Dunhuang, in Hotan in Southern Xinjiang and in Kashgar where there is ample evidence that a “bishopric” thrived until the Mongol area.
A forerunner of today’s Uyghurs were the Turkic Keirat tribe, 200,000 of whom had been baptized by 1009. By the 12th and 13th centuries, the entire tribe was considered Christian. By the 14th century, however, with the arrival of Islam to the region only pockets managed to escape the forced conversions.
Distribution of the Church in the East Turkestan region by the 12th century, presented by Paul Cheung.
The seeds of the church were revived again when the Swedish Missionary Society came to the Southern Silk Road cities in 1892, setting up hospitals, schools, orphanages, and a printing house. By the 1930s, around 300 Uyghurs had believed in Jesus, but the clouds of political unrest and civil war brought the growth of the church to a bloody and violent end in 1933. Emir Abdullah Khan rode into Yerken, crying jihad and death to infidels. He killed all the male believers, including boys from the orphanage, took the young girls as concubines for his men, and expelled the missionaries.
Photo of Uyghur Christians from the Hook collection.
Enver Tohti, CEO of the new WUCU, spoke of his own journey to faith and his prayer that God would “take back His long lost sons and daughters.” Infamous for his own part in extracting the living organs from an executed death row prisoner in the 1990s, when he was a young surgeon in China, and with a subsequent mission to expose China’s organ harvesting industry, Tohti described a “holy force” that “pushed me away” from “money and a self-glorified life” despite his youthful dreams of fame and material success.
Enver Tohti, CEO for the World Uyghur Christian Union.
He spoke of a “spark” of faith, seeded in him in 1994 that took several years to ignite and a vision of Christ “with a tear in His eyes” as He saw His “sons and daughters turning their backs on Him.” “I am determined to bring the Lord’s kingdom back to its original place,” he said.
Kerim Altay, whose wife Gulbahar Haitiwaji was featured in Bitter Winter after her abduction and detention by the CCP, is familiar with the persecution of his people at the hands of the Chinese government. “Despite this we remain steadfast in our faith,” he said. “We believe that Jesus Christ is the path to true freedom and salvation and we are committed to share that message with all Uyghurs.”
Realizing this could mean persecution by fellow countrymen, he reiterated his determination to be the “light set on a hill” described by Jesus. “Throughout history, Uyghur Christians have faced persecution and oppression, yet by God’s grace we have always emerged stronger and more resilient,” he said. “We stand in solidarity with our people, united in faith to serve them and make a difference to their lives.”
The lineup of speakers at the inaugural conference of the World Uyghur Christian Union. Left to right: David Campanale (former BBC journalist), Örkesh Davlet (Taiwan Parliamentary Human Rights Commission), moderator Kate Saunders (Tibet studies specialist), Ethan Gutmann (senior researcher, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation), Kerim Altay (WUCU chairperson), David Burrows (U.K. Freedom of Religion or Belief Deputy Special Envoy), Tenzin Kunga (U.K. Tibetan Community chairperson), Enver Tohti (WUCU CEO), Nathan Duddles (Silk Road Project).
David Burrows, British Prime Minister’s Deputy Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion of Belief, spoke of his determination not to allow the plight of the Uyghurs to slip from public consciousness. William Wilberforce’s priorities in his battle against slavery, had been to “pray, pray, pray,” said Burrows, celebrating the WUCU as a “world first,” and encouraging the Christian group from the New Testament book of Romans to “never be lacking in zeal, but keeping their spiritual fervor serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction faithful in prayer.”
David Campanale, a former BBC journalist, reminded the Uyghur Christians that the “God of history” had not forgotten their brothers and sisters who had fallen at the point of the sword hundreds of years ago.” He said that their “mission and purpose in bringing the Gospel of hope to East Turkestan is historic and part of Christian tradition, but would not be without suffering.” “But resurrection follows the suffering,” he said. “Don’t ever be discouraged that this is a small beginning,” he said. “But it’s from the lowliest and the smallest in number that God uses the weak to shame the wise.”
Uyghur Örkesh Davlet, a former leader of the Tiananmen student movement in 1989 and now Executive Deputy General Secretary of the Taiwan Parliamentary Human Rights Commission.
Uyghur Örkesh Davlet, Executive Deputy General Secretary of the Taiwan Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, famed for his co-leadership of the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989, and his subsequent flight to Taiwan, spoke of his own longing for faith. Describing himself as “spiritual, a believer in the judgement day and in humble prayer,” he congratulated his Uyghur friends who had found this path to Jesus Christ. “The biggest gift from God to man is a free mind,” he said.