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Ramadan in Xinjiang: Diplomat Confirms Partial Restrictions

A Chinese diplomat in neighboring Pakistan said Beijing has put only partial restrictions on Ramadan activities

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FILE - Uighurs attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Urumqi, in western China's Xinjiang province, Aug 8, 2008. VOA

A Chinese official denies allegations by activists that China’s government is blocking Muslim religious practices in the restive Xinjiang region during the holy month of Ramadan.

A Chinese diplomat in neighboring Pakistan said Beijing has put only partial restrictions on Ramadan activities, not a total ban on fasting by the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

“There’s no blanket ban. That’s Western propaganda,” Lijian Zhao, the deputy chief of mission at China’s embassy in Islamabad, told VOA.

Zhao said that Xinjiang residents were free to fast during Ramadan and that restrictions were limited to those with official responsibilities to ensure their religious practices did not interfere with their public duties.

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A map showing “East Turkistan,” the name Uighurs who oppose Chinese rule call their homeland, a region China refers to as Xinjiang is seen at a bookstore in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu neighborhood, Dec. 14, 2017. VOA

“Restrictions are with the Communist Party members, who are atheists; government officials, who shall discharge their duties; and students who are with compulsory education and hard learning tasks,” he said.

The official’s comments come as human rights activists and Uighur advocacy groups have expressed concern about the Chinese government’s widening its repression of thousands of Uighurs as they joined millions of Muslims from around the world to fast during Ramadan, which began May 5 and continues for a month.

Dolkun Isa, the head of the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, told VOA that Uighurs who are working in the public sector and students are asked to appear daily at canteens during lunch or they will be accused of secretly fasting and hiding “extremist” tendencies.

Disputing Zhao’s assertion that the restrictions were limited, the exiled Uighur leader Isa said government workers were also forced to take home food and share with their family members. Other common Muslim practices, such as attending prayer and wearing a headscarf, are also banned for local residents.

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“In some cases, Uighur employees are forced to take home pork and ordered to share with their families,” said Isa. “The restrictions on Ramadan have been in place every year since 2016, but they are especially hard this year.”

Separatist movement

The vast region of deserts and mountains in the northwest is home to nearly 22 million people and has the greatest concentration of Muslims in China, estimated to be about 11 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.

Conflict in the region is not new. The Chinese government has for decades suppressed a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region.

The government in Beijing has in recent years faced growing international condemnation over the detention of more than a million minority Uighurs and other Muslims in so-called re-education camps.

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FILE – Barbed wire protects the walls around a cluster of schools on the outskirts of Kashgar, in western China’s Xinjiang region, Aug. 31, 2018. VOA

Detention camps

Earlier this month, Randall Schriver, who leads Asia policy at the U.S. Department of Defense, said that the estimated number of detainees could be “closer to 3 million citizens.”

“The Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,” Schriver said at a Pentagon briefing.

The term “concentration camps” is generally associated with the death camps operated by Nazi Germany in 1940s.

Chinese officials, however, say that their measures in Xinjiang are needed to combat the threat of terrorism and that the camps are nothing but vocational training centers. They are asking the U.S. to “stop interfering” in their domestic affairs.

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“We urge the relevant U.S. individual to respect the fact, abandon bias, exercise prudence in words and deeds, stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs, and earnestly contribute to mutual trust and cooperation between us,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang at a press briefing last week.

Shuang said their measures at “vocational and educational training institutions” operate according to law and they endorse all ethnic group members with “positive social effects.”

Anti-terror law

In December 2015, China passed its controversial anti-terror law, which according to Human Rights Watch gave government agencies “enormous discretionary powers.”

The government’s April 2017 regulations to “prevent extremism” drew international outcry, with critics saying they violated basic human rights and religious freedom.

According to the state-run newspaper China Daily, the regulations forbid people in the region from wearing full-face coverings and long beards. They also prohibit them from “choosing names in an abnormal way” or “rejecting or refusing state products and services that include radio and television programming.” (VOA)

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Women Seek Abortion Out Of State Due to Restrictions

Women in 'The States' are being strictly held when it comes to abortion

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Abortion rights activists protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, during the March for Life in Washington, Jan. 18, 2019. VOA

Women in ‘The States’ are being strictly held when it comes to abortion. But, now they are finding relief out of the state. At a routine ultrasound when she was five months pregnant, Hevan Lunsford began to panic when the technician took longer than normal, then told her she would need to see a specialist.

Lunsford, a nurse in Alabama, knew it was serious and begged for an appointment the next day.

That’s when the doctor gave her and her husband the heart-wrenching news: The baby boy they decided to name Sebastian was severely underdeveloped and had only half a heart. If he survived, he would need care to ease his pain and several surgeries. He may not live long.

Lunsford, devastated, asked the doctor about ending the pregnancy.

“I felt the only way to guarantee that he would not have any suffering was to go through with the abortion,” she said of that painful decision nearly three years ago.

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Bianca Cameron-Schwiesow, from left, Kari Crowe and Margeaux Hartline, dressed as handmaids, take part in a protest against HB314, the abortion ban bill, at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., April 17, 2019. VOA

But the doctor said Alabama law prohibits abortions after five months. He handed Lunsford a piece of paper with information for a clinic in Atlanta, a roughly 180-mile (290-kilometer) drive east.

Lunsford is one of thousands of women in the U.S. who have crossed state lines for an abortion in recent years as states have passed ever stricter laws and as the number of clinics has declined.

Although abortion opponents say the laws are intended to reduce abortions and not send people to other states, at least 276,000 women terminated their pregnancies outside their home states between 2012 and 2017, according to an Associated Press analysis of data collected from state reports and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In New Mexico, the number of women from out of state who had abortions more than doubled in that period, while Missouri women represented nearly half the abortions performed in neighboring Kansas.

“The procedure itself was probably the least traumatic part of it,” Lunsford said. “If it would have been at my hospital, there would have been a feeling like what I was doing was OK and a reasonable choice.”

While abortions across the U.S. are down, the share of women who had abortions out of state rose slightly, by half a percentage point, and certain states had notable increases over the five-year period, according to AP’s analysis.

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Abortion rights supporters protest at the Louisiana Capitol, where lawmakers were considering a bill that would ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy, May 21, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. The bill won final passage May 29. VOA

In pockets of the Midwest, South and Mountain West, the number of women terminating a pregnancy in another state rose considerably, particularly where a lack of clinics means the closest provider is in another state or where less restrictive policies in a neighboring state make it easier and quicker to terminate a pregnancy there.

“In many places, the right to abortion exists on paper, but the ability to access it is almost impossible,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Women’s Health, which operates seven abortion clinics in Maryland, Indiana, Texas, Virginia and Minnesota. “We see people’s access to care depend on their ZIP code.”

The numbers 

Nationwide, women who traveled from other states received at least 44,860 abortions in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the AP analysis of data from 41 states.

That’s about 10% of all reported procedures that year, but counts from nine states, including highly populated California and Florida, and the District Columbia were not included, either because they were not collected or reported across the full five years.

Thirteen states saw a rise in the number of out-of-state women having abortions between 2012 and 2017.

New Mexico’s share of abortions performed on women from out of state more than doubled, from 11% to roughly 25%. One likely reason is that a clinic in Albuquerque is one of only a few independent facilities in the country that perform abortions close to the third trimester without conditions.

Georgia’s share of abortions performed on out-of-state women rose from 11.5% to 15%. While Georgia has passed restrictive laws, experts and advocates still view it as more accessible than some neighboring states.

In Illinois, the percentage of abortions performed on non-residents more than doubled to 16.5% of all reported state abortions in 2017. That is being driven in large part by women from Missouri, one of six states with only a single abortion provider.

Even that provider, in St. Louis, has been under threat of closing after the state health department refused to renew its license.

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Abortion rights and anti-abortion rights protesters stand outside Planned Parenthood as a deadline looms to renew the license of Missouri’s sole remaining Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, May 31, 2019. VOA

Missouri lawmakers also passed a law this year that would ban almost all abortions past eight weeks of a pregnancy, but it faces a legal challenge.

About 10 miles (16 kilometers) from St. Louis, across the Mississippi River, is the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which has seen a 30% increase in patients this year and has added two doctors, deputy director Alison Dreith said.

About 55 percent of its patients come from Missouri, and it also sees women from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. All those states have mandatory waiting periods to receive an abortion, a requirement Illinois does not have.

Dreith called it a scary time for women in states with highly restrictive laws and few clinics.

“The landscape that we’re seeing today did not happen overnight, and it was not by accident,” she said.

And Illinois isn’t the only place Missouri women are heading for abortions.

In 2017, Missouri women received 47% of all abortions performed in Kansas. That is in large part because the only access to the procedure throughout western Missouri, particularly the greater Kansas City area, is across the state line in Overland Park, Kansas.

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In pockets of the Midwest, South and Mountain West, the number of women terminating a pregnancy in another state rose considerably, particularly where a lack of clinics means the closest provider is in another state or where less restrictive policies in a neighboring state make it easier and quicker to terminate a pregnancy there. VOA

Legislative action 

Between 2011 and May 31 of this year, 33 states passed 480 laws restricting abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.

In 2019 alone, lawmakers approved 58 restrictions, primarily in the Midwest, Plains and South — almost half of which would ban all, most or some abortions, the group said.

The most high-profile laws, which face legal challenges that could eventually test the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — as early as six weeks.

Advocates say that if the Supreme Court upholds the latest restrictions, it will become more common for women to seek abortions in other states.

“The intent of these lawmakers is to completely outlaw abortion and force people not to have abortions. But in reality, it pushes people farther and wider to access the care they want and need,” said Quita Tinsley, deputy director of Access Reproductive Care Southeast.

ARC Southeast is part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a collective of 70 abortion support groups for women in six Southeast states. Some provide money to women to pay for abortions, while others also help with transportation, lodging and child care.

A third of women calling the group’s hotline for help end up traveling out of state for abortions, Tinsley said. Many choose Georgia because it’s convenient to get to and considered slightly less restrictive than some other states in the South.

In Georgia, which has a mandatory waiting period, a woman is not required to come to a clinic twice, as they are in Tennessee. But if Georgia’s new fetal heartbeat law survives a court challenge, it would have one of the earliest state-imposed abortion bans.

That would force many women to go even farther from where they live to terminate their pregnancies.

Increase in New Mexico 

Of all states, New Mexico has seen the biggest increase in the number of women coming from elsewhere for an abortion — a 158% jump between 2012 and 2017, according to AP’s analysis.

The New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice helps an average of 100 women a year but is on track to assist 200 this year. Some of its 55 volunteers open their homes to women coming from out of state.

Executive director Joan Lamunyon Sanford said her group is doing what faith communities have always done: “Care for the stranger and welcome the traveler.”

Lamunyon Sanford said the need is growing as barriers increase and women are unable to access care where they live.

“They have to figure out so many details and figuring out how they are going to get the funding for everything,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just too much. And then they become parents.”

The coalition helped Beth Vial, who didn’t learn she was pregnant until she was six months along after chronic medical conditions masked her symptoms.

As a 22-year-old college student living in Portland, Oregon, Vial was beyond the point when nearly every abortion clinic in the country would perform the procedure.

Vial’s only option for an abortion was New Mexico, where a volunteer with the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice drove her to and from the clinic in Albuquerque and brought her meals.

The support she received inspired her to join the board of Northwest Access Abortion Fund, which helps women in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.

“To have people I didn’t even know support me in ways that I didn’t even really know I needed at the time was unlike anything I have ever experienced,” said Vial, now 24. “It has encouraged me to give back to my community so other people don’t have to experience that alone.”

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People rally in support of abortion rights at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., May 21, 2019. VOA

Hoping for cultural shift 

Abortion opponents say the intent of laws limiting the procedure is not to push women to another state but to build more time for them to consider their options and reduce the overall number of abortions.

“I have been insistent in telling my pro-life colleagues that’s all well and good if the last abortion clinic shuts down, but it’s no victory if women end up driving 10 minutes across the river to Granite City, Illinois, or to Fairview Heights,” said Sam Lee, director of Campaign Life Missouri and a longtime anti-abortion lobbyist.

Anti-abortion activists also hope a broader cultural shift eventually makes these issues disappear.

“We are seeing this trend toward life and a realization of what science tells us about when life begins,” said Cole Muzio, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, who advocated successfully for new abortion limits there. “Just because something is legal does not mean that it is good.”

Before the recent wave of legislation focused on limiting when an abortion can be performed, opponents largely worked to regulate clinics. Critics say those regulations contributed to more clinics closing in recent years, reducing access to abortion in parts of the country and pushing women farther for care.

Texas lost more than half its clinics after lawmakers in 2013 required them to have facilities equal to a surgical center and mandated that doctors performing abortions have admitt