The Chief Rabbi has launched a scathing attack on China’s persecution of its Uyghur Muslim minority, in an intervention that will add further pressure on governments, companies and consumers to take action.
Writing in The Guardian on Tuesday, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said that, having heard several accounts from Uyghurs who had escaped, “and reflecting upon the deep pain of Jewish persecution throughout the ages, I feel compelled to speak out”.
He said speaking out was a duty, particularly at Chanukah, “when we recall attempts ‘to cause the Jewish faith to be forgotten and to prevent Jews from keeping their traditions’… These words refer back to the cruel oppression of Jews”.
Mirvis said the “weight of evidence” of persecution was “overwhelming,” with Uyghurs “beaten if they refuse to renounce their faith, women forced to abort their unborn children then sterilised to prevent them from becoming pregnant again”.
Lamenting “forced imprisonment, the separation of children from their parents and a culture of intimidation and fear,” he said in his discussions with senior figures he had “been left feeling that any improvement in the desperate situation is impossible”.
He added that, growing up in Apartheid South Africa, and ministering in Ireland during the Troubles, ‘impossible’ was a word he often heard – and in both cases, wrongdoing and conflict came to an end.
“Last week marked the 72nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… That same year, the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was also adopted,” he wrote.
“Both documents, which stand among humanity’s most vital legal and moral proclamations, are at risk of fading into the political periphery if we are not prepared to act upon them.”
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It is understood that Mirvis has been applying pressure in private for months, but with little sign of purposeful action in Downing Street and Whitehall, chose to “put his head above the parapet” and record his disgust.
Mirvis’s intervention this week, which will reverberate along the corridors of power, follows publication of a report showing how Chinese authorities are forcing hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs into forced labour, with most sent to pick cotton from fields in the western region of Xinjiang.
Jewish News has led a campaign to highlight to MPs how China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority has deep resonances with the Jewish experience of persecution. Images of shaved heads, crammed cells and names replaced by numbers in vast ‘re-education’ camps have led to communal revulsion.
There is now huge and mounting pressure on companies to withdraw their supply chain connections to the region, on consumers to trace their products’ origins, and on world governments to sanction China, which has to-date dismissed claims of persecution as fanciful.
“At this very moment, an unfathomable mass atrocity is being perpetrated,” wrote Mirvis. “Though the task is great, none of us is free to desist from it. As Nelson Mandela himself once said: It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
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