[Photo: Turkish people march to Chinese Embassy in Istanbul to voice their anger at China’s perceived discrimination against Muslims on fasting during Ramadan on July 5. Photographer: Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency]
ISTANBUL (AA): Nearly 2,000 people gathered in Istanbul’s northernmost Sariyer district Sunday marched to the Chinese consulate to protest what they consider to be discrimination against China’s Muslim population.
The protests have taken place across Turkey since Tuesday, when the Foreign Ministry expressed “deep concern” about reports Beijing had instilled fasting restrictions on the Turkic Uighur people during Ramadan.
Members of Alperen Ocaklari, the youth group of the ultranationalist Great Union Party (BBP), and the Free East Turkestan Platform — an umbrella group of different Uighur associations in Turkey — gathered for the protests at around 1.00 p.m. [1100GMT] in the Tarabya district.
Before marching to the consulate, the demonstrators set fire to a Chinese flag.
The crowds — predominantly male with some women and children — carried East Turkestan flags and chanted: “Turkey don’t sleep, protect your brothers,” “Long Live Muslim East Turkestan” and “Long live free East Turkestan”.
China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — home to many ethnic minority groups, including Uighur Turks — is predominantly known as East Turkestan in Turkey.
Marchers also carried banners reading: “Don’t buy Chinese products” and “Murderer China, get out of Turkestan”.
The group — including fan groups from the city’s Galatasaray and Besiktas football teams — left a black wreath at the consulate, where police provided tight security.
Barricades had earlier closed off the road in front of the site, where at least two water cannons were stationed.
Speaking to media, a member of the Free East Turkestan Platform, Hidayet Oguzhan, accused China of increasing pressure on Muslim minorities, particularly in terms of their religion, language and culture.
Oguzhan claimed that a fasting ban China is reported to have applied on a segment of its society was in fact universal.
“We strongly condemn China’s continuing state terror through pressure, arrests and massacre in East Turkestan,” he said.
“Our brothers in East Turkestan are forced to live under oppression and persecution.”
Oguzhan also underlined that July 5 marks the anniversary of protests in 2009 in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi that he said had left “thousands of young people” dead.
Ahmet Bahadir Dogrul, an 18-year-old political science student at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, told Anadolu Agency that he had attended the protest to condemn “China’s oppression of people in East Turkestan”.
“Maybe I cannot do something to react against this oppression, but I am here to publically announce it,” he added.
Another protester, Abide Aktug, 39, said she is originally from the Uighur region but has been living in Istanbul since 2002 after she was forced to leave her homeland due to ongoing pressure.
She said she had joined Sunday’s protest to commemorate the young people killed in 2009.
Similar protests also took place in Ankara, Eskisehir, Mugla, Bingol, Osmaniye, Sivas, and Sanliurfa.
Meanwhile, Mehmet Gormez, president of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, told Anadolu Agency that China’s alleged ban on fasting was “unacceptable whatever the reason”.
Earlier Sunday, China warned its citizens to stay away from the protests.
A notice on the website for China’s Embassy to Turkey called on its citizens to not approach or film or photograph the protests, and “reduce individual outings”.
Tuesday’s Foreign Ministry statement expressed “deep concern” about reports Beijing has instilled the restrictions during the holy month.
China has since expressed “concerns” of its own about the Turkish statement.
The Chinese warning to its citizens comes after a group of Korean tourists had to be rescued by police Saturday after they were attacked by marchers connected to Turkey’s “Gray Wolves” movement.
Gray Wolves Istanbul chief Ahmet Yildirim denied in a statement Sunday that the Koreans had been attacked or that it involved the movement’s members.
Turkish newspaper Sabah reported that they had been mistaken for Chinese nationals.
The Gray Wolves are a pan-Turkic movement, represented in parliament by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — which received 16.3 percent of the vote in the June 7 election.
In mid-June, it was widely reported that China had banned fasting in parts of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for party members, civil servants, students and teachers.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry said that her government had noted Turkey’s concerns and wanted clarification.
“All ethnic groups in China are entitled to the freedom of religious belief under Chinese constitution,” Hua Chunying said through a translator.
That claim followed allegations last year that Beijing had issued warnings to employees and students not to fast during Ramadan.
It is also reported to have restricted men from having long beards, clamped down on religious education activities, and acted to control the entrances and exits to mosques.
Many Turks believe that Uighur are among a number of Turkic tribes that inhabit China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and consider it to be part of Central Asia, not China.
Uighur, a Turkic group that makes up around 45 percent of the population of Xinjiang, has accused China of carrying out repressive policies that restrain their religious, commercial and cultural activities.
On Sunday, China blamed the protests on “false news by foreign media”, saying that the allegations of a fasting ban did not reflect the truth.
*Anadolu Agency correspondent Satuk Bugra Kutlugun contributed to this story from Ankara.