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Bosnia's Former Grand Mufti Accused Of Whitewashing China's Rights Abuses In Xinjiang


Former Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric arrives for a ceremony at a mosque in Sarajevo in 2012.
Former Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric arrives for a ceremony at a mosque in Sarajevo in 2012.

SARAJEVO -- The former grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina is facing accusations of helping to whitewash Beijing's human rights abuses in Xinjiang against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities after he visited China's western province and praised the Chinese Communist Party's policies.

As part of a government-organized visit on January 8 to Xinjiang in cooperation with the World Muslim Communities Council, a U.A.E.-funded organization, Mustafa Ceric, who served as grand mufti from 1999 to 2012 and held a variety of other influential roles within Bosnia's Islamic community, toured the region along with a delegation of more than 30 Islamic clerics and scholars from 14 countries.

The tour received widespread coverage from China's domestic and international media outlets, with a focus on comments made by Ceric where he praised China's growing global role and "the Chinese policy of fighting terrorism and de-radicalization for achieving peace and harmony in [Xinjiang]."

The comments echo Beijing's justification for its treatment of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang, which has been the site of a brutal crackdown launched by Beijing in recent years that swept up more than 1 million people in detention camps and prisons. The United States and several Western parliaments have said that China's abuses in Xinjiang amount to genocide and crimes against humanity, while the United Nations said in an August 2022 report that Beijing had committed "serious human rights violations."

Members of the World Muslim Communities Council attend a Uyghur performance in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on January 8.
Members of the World Muslim Communities Council attend a Uyghur performance in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on January 8.

Leaders from Bosnia's Islamic community moved quickly to distance themselves from Ceric's statements as the delegation of Muslim scholars and clerics also faced international criticism from rights groups and the Uyghur diaspora for helping shield China from scrutiny.

"China, by inviting so-called World Muslim Communities Council leaders to [Xinjiang], is still trying to deceive the world," Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, wrote on Twitter following the delegation's tour. "It is a fact that China has been engaging in a genocidal policy toward Uyghurs, and at the same time, China declared war against Islam."

Mustafa Prljaca, adviser to Husein Kavazovic, Bosnia's current grand mufti, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the country's Islamic leadership had nothing to do with Ceric's visit and that the grand mufti's office did not agree with his statements about Chinese policies in Xinjiang.

"We have different views, based on the information that we have," he said.

Chinese riot police patrol a street in Urumqi.
Chinese riot police patrol a street in Urumqi.

In addition to Ceric, the trip was attended by Mevlud Dudic, the president of the governing body of the Islamic community in Serbia, who also praised Beijing's policies in Xinjiang.

As with Ceric, other Islamic leaders in Serbia sought to distance themselves from the comments and the tour as a whole, with Samir Skrijelj, secretary-general of the governing body of the Islamic community in Serbia, telling RFE/RL that the religious body has no affiliation with the delegation brought to Xinjiang and that Dudic went on the trip in his own personal capacity.

While China's policies in Xinjiang have received resounding criticism from Western capitals, many governments from Muslim-majority countries have refrained from criticizing Beijing or have even defended its actions, which analysts attribute to China's expanded economic and diplomatic power across the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia in the last decade.

The delegation that brought Ceric and Dudic to Xinjiang was organized by the World Muslim Communities Council, which is funded by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) state. Ali Rashid al-Nuaimi, the chairman of the group, is an Emirati lawmaker and member of the U.A.E. Federal National Council for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Nuaimi also drew criticism from Uyghur groups for comments to Chinese state media where he said that Beijing's policies in Xinjiang were necessary and condoned by Islamic leaders around the world.

"Here [in Xinjiang] we look at all Muslims as Chinese. They should be proud to be Chinese nationals," Nuaimi told CGTN during an interview while on the tour.

Since early reports about Beijing's internment camp system in Xinjiang emerged in 2017, an abundance of credible evidence -- including testimonies, open-source data, and leaked Chinese government documents -- has revealed abuses including forced labor, mass detention, surveillance, and forced sterilization.

In response to the growing scrutiny, researchers and some governments say that Beijing has orchestrated a global campaign to shape world opinion about its abuses in Xinjiang and treatment of Uyghurs there that consists of spreading disinformation, search-engine manipulation, tightly managed media tours, and enlisting social-media influencers to push propaganda and its own narrative to international audiences.

"Covert and overt online information campaigns have been deployed to portray positive narratives about the [Chinese Communist Party's] domestic policies in the region, while also injecting disinformation into the global public discourse regarding Xinjiang," stated a 2021 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank.

Beyond Ceric and the highly publicized visit, Bosnian authorities also found themselves ensnared in controversy involving Xinjiang in 2021.

In July of that year, Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic signed a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council along with more than 40 other -- mostly Western -- countries that expressed alarm about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and called for an international inquiry.

In response, Milorad Dodik, who was then the Serbian representative of the Balkan country's tripartite presidency, sent an official letter to the UN where he asked for Bosnia's signature to be withdrawn from the statement.

The country's presidency is part of the complex administration established by the Dayton peace accords that ended its 1992-95 war by creating administrative entities within state structures that represent its three main ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.

Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang in 2021.
Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang in 2021.

Sefik Dzaferovic, who held the Bosniak presidential seat at the time, and Zeljko Komsic, who is still the Croats' presidential representative, were both in favor of supporting the statement and backed the Foreign Ministry.

Neighboring Serbia, with which Bosnia's Serbian community closely aligns, has drifted closer to China in recent years, with Belgrade becoming one of Beijing's closest European partners.

Dodik was ultimately overruled through a vote, but continued to defend his position, saying that criticizing Beijing over Xinjiang would lead to a "serious disruption of good and friendly relations with the People's Republic of China."

Written by Reid Standish based on reporting by Meliha Kesmer and Predrag Zvijerac of RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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