A "Coffee Chat" on Religious Freedom Turns to Uyghur Persecution

The Religious Freedom Institute held an event titled, “Religious Liberty in America: The Challenges and the Promise” at America's Islamic Heritage Museum on May 10, 2019. This event was the second of a four-part initiative made possible by Islamic Relief USA that seeks to bring together representatives of different faith groups in conversation and common projects. Following the event, two participants, each from a different religious tradition, were awarded a gift card as an invitation to meet one another for coffee and then to write about the experience. What follows are their accounts of the conversation.

Eleesha Tucker and Rushan Abbas take a photo together during their visit over tea and coffee.

Eleesha Tucker

My name is Eleesha Tucker and I first met Rushan Abbas at the Religious Freedom Institute’s panel titled, Religious Liberty in America: The Challenges and the Promise, held at the Islamic Heritage Museum in Anacostia, Washington, DC. I’m a Latter-day Saint (Mormon) and I was excited to attend the event because the renowned Mormon historian, Dr. Kathleen Flake, presented on the panel. 

Rushan and I met for “coffee” at Peet’s Coffee. I put coffee in quotation marks because the health code in Latter-day Saint practice includes abstaining from coffee, so I ordered an herbal tea and a delicious quiche while Rushan and I became better acquainted. Rushan is an activist for Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China who are suffering government persecution.  I learned about the motivation behind Rushan’s activism and more about the Uyghur persecution.

Rushan is particularly convicted to speak out about Uyghur persecution because her sister disappeared a few days following Rushan’s public speech condemning the Chinese government’s actions toward the Uyghurs. Securing her sister’s freedom, along with other Uyghurs, is her daily mission.

The Chinese government has relocated many Uyghurs into “re-education camps,” claiming it as an effort to prevent domestic terrorism. In these concentration camps, what these camps are in reality, the captives are stripped of their Muslim cultural expressions and subjected to forced labor.  Rushan told me about a recent social media campaign, #ProveThe90%, which started in response to the Chinese government’s claim it released 90% of Uyghurs from these camps. Family members took to social media demanding the government prove the claim. Among the Uyghur community anxiously awaiting reunion with their missing family member, no one reported the return of their loved one.

Rushan’s advocacy reminded me of the unique relationship the U.S. government has with religion, framed by the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. Congress is forbidden to promote one religion over another and cannot restrict an individual’s religious practices. The Chinese government’s relationship with religion is antagonistic, and its own people suffer for it. May the Uyghurs soon be restored to their inherent right of religious freedom.

Rushan Abbas

My name is Rushan Abbas and I’m an advocate for Uyghurs’ religious freedom in China. I met Eleesha Tucker at the Religious Freedom Institute panel, which I learned about through my work on Capitol Hill and involvement with the International Religious Freedom Roundtable.

Eleesha and I met over coffee. She was sweet to be patient with me.  I had several international trips that led me to reschedule our coffee meeting, but these trips were excellent opportunities to inform more people about the oppression of Uyghurs in China. I was delighted to learn that Eleesha is a Mormon. In the past, I have worked with several Mormons in Guantanamo and each of them were smart and trustworthy. They were in the military and I was a government contractor at the time. Eleesha shared some of the history of Mormon persecution in the U.S. which was done by local governments, relating it to the Uyghurs.

Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the Extermination Order, was an executive order issued in October 1838 by the Missouri governor, and it pronounced that Mormons must be “treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.” The Missouri militia used the executive order to violently expel the Mormons from their lands. The Mormons were just living their lives, inspired by their religion, and the government sought their destruction, claiming it was necessary for the public peace. The Chinese government is doing similarly to the Uyghurs. It spuriously claims the Uyghurs’ capture is necessary to protect against terrorism. Uyghurs’ rights are violated on claims of keeping the public peace.

The panel we initially met at addressed the promise of religious freedom, but sometimes that promise isn’t met. Learning a little bit about Mormon persecution in the U.S. encouraged me — though there may be a point in time when that promise is not met, it may still be fulfilled in the future. I have hope.