The secret churches of Uyghur Christians
7 Mar. 2020
By John Shepherd (alias)
When it comes to secret societies among Uyghurs, it is very likely that the most secret and most widespread among them is the Uyghur Christian community. With a population of over 10 million people, Uyghurs are the largest ethnic group in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in South-Western China. Uyghurs are predominantly Sunni, Hanafi Muslims. My earliest knowledge of Christian Uyghurs begins with the story a Uyghur man named Abdullah, who I met in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Abdullah's hometown is Kashgar- he was a chef at a restaurant in Urumqi. Abdullah revealed that he first heard about Christianity from a classmate while studying in high school in Kashgar. His classmate was from a Uyghur Christian family, which held secret weekly gatherings in their homes. When Abdullah initially attended this Uyghur church he felt as if he had entered a Muslim mosque: The walls had Islamic ornaments with the words "Allah" on them. Yet, women wearing hijabs were praying alongside men.
When Abdullah joined them and prayed in the Muslim way an old woman called him to her and said, "Hold the book in my hand and read it, my child." It was the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God" he read, and his whole body trembled, not from fear, but from comfort.
I was lucky enough to join Abdullah to visit a Uyghur underground church in Urumqi, but it was different to the experience that Abdullah described. This church was located in an English language school in a building close to Xinjiang University, and thus resembled a classroom more than an actual church. The attendees were mostly 20 something year-old Uyghur youths, with no ostensible difference to Western Christians. It seemed that most church community members seemed to be students of the language school. Holding N.I.V versions of the English Bible, they sang the song "My Jesus My Savior" in English. They raised their hands up to the sky and waved them to the rhythm of the song, some crying uncontrollably as they sang. After the hymns, a woman named Gulmira preached in Uyghur and after the prayers everyone had the opportunity to sit down and chat with each other while waiting for polo, a traditional Uyghur dish.
"I was born into a Christian family," said Arzigul, a Uyghur girl, who seemed more outspoken than other members of the congregation. "It's been three years since I was baptized" said Nadire, a Turkish-looking girl wearing a hijab. At first sight, I was convinced she was Muslim. “Are there any Muslim Uyghurs here?” I asked. They said Muslim Uyghurs could not attend the event. I was amazed to find such a large Christian church in this language school.
After lunch I attended Bible study with them and, although the book was written in English, the teacher spoke in Uyghur. His students seem to love his lesson very much, would laugh with each other for a while and would discuss theological topics and bible stories. Their class was more relaxed then the Christians schools I saw in Hollywood films.
I really wanted to see a traditional Uyghur church, similar to that which Abdullah had first entered, and my wish was granted in 2018 in Istanbul.
"Do you know the Ulu Jami in Zeytinburnu? Let's meet there during Friday prayers" said the Uyghur pastor, who called me. I was introduced to him by an Uyghur Christian pastor in Urumqi, otherwise it would not have been possible to meet them. I didn't see anyone after the Friday prayers and walked out of Ulu Jami, thinking that he must have been worried about safety and had cancelled our meeting. Then someone approached me, took my arm and said to me: "Sir, don't worry, I'm the one who called you". Along with a young Uyghur he pointed me towards the gate. As we set off from the Jami, he put a black bag over my head and pushed me into a car. Fear was rising in my heart. "What if these are jihadists from the mountains of Syria, not the Uyghur Church?"
“Where are you going to take me?” I asked them, my voice trembling with fear. I believe they understood my concern and told me: "Excuse me, sir, we frightened you, we have no choice but to do so for our own safety. I am Pastor Yahya. We are members of the Istanbul Uyghur Church, sorry, we can't show you where we are taking you." His voice gave me some comfort and I calmed down. I didn’t know how long we drove in the car, how many stops and how many times we turned, then the car stopped. They ordered me to get out of the car carefully. I didn’t know how many floors we climbed and when I opened my eyes, I was heartbroken to see that I was standing in a Uyghur home with a Uyghur table in front of me.
"Is this the place where you are gathering?" I asked Yahya. He smiled at me as he poured me a cup of tea and said, "Yes, the salon next door is our temple, and we come here every Friday to pray." A few Uyghur girls wearing hijabs came in and sat around the table, followed by several young men and a middle-aged man. "We are very happy to see you here" said the middle-aged Uyghur man in a Hotan accent. "I'm glad to see you too, for believing in me and for inviting me here" I said, thanking them.
"We normally fill this salon, you know, we are very careful. And we live in a place like Turkey. There are Uyghurs who have returned from Syria- we can't imagine what will happen to us if they know we are Christians. Many of us are worried and didn’t come today" said a young woman, wearing a hijab. From her accent I speculate that she was from Kashgar or Atush.
They say that they are living like believers did in the time of Jesus Christ, they share and support each other. Among them there are some wealthy believers, that with the help of the church, not only Uyghur Christians but also Uyghur Muslim widows have been supported. When I asked them about their relationship with Muslims, they told me: "Most Uyghur women here, especially young ones wear burka, so I also wear burka. My husband has a beard and cannot be distinguished from other Uyghurs,". I interrupted the young girl: "If you are not a Muslim, why do you want to be disguised as a Wahhabi Muslim?" She told me that her ex-husband had disappeared in Egypt, that she had dressed this way when she first arrived in Istanbul and that she later met her current husband and converted to Christianity through her husband.
I asked her again: "But why are you still disguised?” She was a little upset when I asked her this question, but replied: "I'm sorry, please don't judge me- this is my choice and I feel safe walking this way. My Muslim friends always come to visits me and I pray for them in the hope that some of them may accept Jesus Christ.”
After praying like Muslims, the congregation was sat in the mosque-like Uyghur church listening to the Uyghur pastors. It felt like a mosque. What was different from the mosque was the Bible they were holding in their hands, with men and women sitting together. It may be more accurate to liken their temple to a Jewish tabernacle than to a Christian church. The girls wearing hijab looked more like the Jewish women who lived in the same era as Jesus Christ- like scenes in Christian movies.
"How many Christians do you think there are among the Uyghurs?" I asked Yahya. His answer surprised me:
“In the past, evangelists from the West and Korea used to spread the gospel to the Uyghurs, later Uyghur missionaries also began evangelizing, with the support of the Uyghur churches. Nearly half a million Uyghurs in the Uyghur region may have been baptized. There are Uyghur house churches in all cities, counties and even some modest size villages in the Uyghur region”.
“If there are so many, why don't they reveal that they are Christians? There are so many foreign religious missionaries, don't they know the situation?” I asked him. “After the Urumqi massacre in 2009 there was a wave of separation of Uyghur churches from Chinese churches. The contact of foreign missionaries with the Uyghur churches is mainly through the Chinese churches or the Uyghur underground churches, which have a close connection with the Chinese churches. We belong to an independent Uyghur church and our members are made up of people who have embraced Jesus, not through foreign missionaries, but through Uyghur missionaries.”
“But where does this number of half a million come from?” I asked. He replied, “Uyghur churches have a network, pastors gather at least once a year and we collect taxes according to the baptized members of each church. I don’t think anyone could lie on that, because they would pay more taxes if they inflated their number.”
"So, you don't have contact with foreigners, or with the Chinese," I asked. In his response, he said there was only an exchange of views between the upper echelons of the church. When I asked if they were Protestants or Catholics, he affirmed that they were Protestants.
“Why are Uyghur Christians afraid to admit that they are Christians in front of other Uyghurs?” I asked him. “Uyghurs discriminate against and even persecute Christian Uyghurs. First of all, we do not disclose ourselves for our own safety, and secondly, we want to prevent divisions and internal conflicts among the Uyghurs," he replied. "Your answer is too political," I said with some visible dissatisfaction. The atmosphere began to change as they began to suspect me of being a “Muslim spy”. I apologized to them and asked them to take me back to the Ulu Jami. They put a black bag over my head and put me into the car. This special adventure awakened my thoughts about what seemed to me like a mysterious community. It seems that the reason they do not reveal their religious identity relates to their congregations still relatively small size and the negative attitudes Uyghurs have towards those who abandon the Muslim faith. In effect it seems to me a fear of discrimination. In addition, I think their group stands like a lonely island among Uyghurs, they don’t want to be isolated by their own kinsmen. It should also be noted that they may not be willing to risk their lives and may not want to lose their Muslim relatives. However, seeing that there is such a secret community among the Uyghurs, my love for this ancient nation, which is entering the world of multiculturalism in the 21st century in many colors, has intensified. May God keep them in His shelter.
Edited by Julius Rogenhofer. Names used in the above text are aliases and references to places have been modified to preserve the anonymity of the persons affected. Quotes are not verbatim.