A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs


Alone in GuantanamoThe story of the Uyghurs in Guantánamo — innocent men caught up in the chaos of the Afghan invasion in late 2001 — has long been a prevalent theme in accounts of the arbitrary injustice of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 detention policies. Last week, Judge Ricardo Urbina, recognizing that their continued detention was unconstitutional, ordered the men’s release into the United States. The ruling was appealed by the government — and another ruling is expected soon — but in the meantime community leaders in Tallahassee, Florida, who put together a resettlement plan for three of the men, have been talking about their reasons for doing so.

The following is the text of a sermon delivered by Brant S. Copeland, the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, on September 7, 2008, which rather movingly explains, with reference to the Bible, why religious communities are required to help those in need. I can only hope that it will be made available to the appeal court judges who will decide the Uyghurs’ fate.

Pastor Copeland’s Sermon

Ever hear of Uyghurs? If the answer is “No,” don’t feel bad. Neither had I until a few weeks ago.

Uyghurs are an ethnic group who live in what is now the Xinjiang region of China — way up in the northwest of that vast country with Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, and Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and India to the west. Uyghur country is sparsely populated. It’s mostly deserts and mountains. I think it’s fair so say that most Americans have never heard of it.

Uyghurs speak Turkic, and most of them are Sufi Muslims — have been since the 13th century. Like their neighbors in Tibet, the Uyghurs have been persecuted by the Chinese government for decades, but unlike the Tibetans, they don’t have a spiritual leader like to Dalai Lama to tell their story and keep their plight in the international headlines.

The US State Department officially lists Uyghurs as the victims of state persecution on account of their religion, and that status is a sticking point in Chinese-American relations.

Now this is a sermon, not a social studies talk, and in any case I’ve told you just about everything I know about Uyghurs. Now I’d like you to meet a few Uyghurs — in your imagination at least. Each has a slightly different story, but I’ve learned enough to give you a general picture.

Turn your calendar back to the year 2001. Having fled China to escape persecution, some Uyghur men were living in a refugee camp in the mountains of Afghanistan — the Tora Bora mountain range, to be precise. It seems they were in that settlement on September 11, 2001, when, far away, in cities they had never heard of called New York and Washington, D.C., planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

We all remember what followed: The declaration of a “War on Terror”; the invasion of Afghanistan; the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the bombing of the Tora Bora caves.

The men in this story made their way across snow-covered peaks into Pakistan, where they hoped to find refuge. Some local tribesmen took them in, fed them a feast, and then betrayed them. They turned them over to the military authorities in order to collect the $5,000 bounty per person the Americans were paying for allies of Osama bin Laden.  The problem is, these Uyghurs had never heard of Osama bin Laden.

Twenty -two Uyghur men were caught in that snare and were eventually hooded, shackled, and flown to the US prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

That was seven years ago, and they’ve been there ever since. They’re not “terrorists.”  What they are is refugees who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re certainly not “the worst of the worst,” as we were once told was the case with all the prisoners at Guantánamo. What they are, in Biblical terms, is the “least of the least.”

There are now seventeen Uyghur men being held in Guantánamo. I’ve told you a bit of their story because there’s a chance that in October a federal judge in Washington D.C. will be ordering their release –- or, in legal terms, their “parole.” If that should happen, these Uyghurs will have no place to go. Return to China is impossible, and it appears no other nation in the world will risk China’s displeasure by showing hospitality to Uyghurs.

The volunteer attorneys who represent these men are hoping that there might be some communities around the country who would agree to take a few of them in — give them housing, find them jobs, teach them the skills they will need to make new lives in the country that has imprisoned them for so long.

A few weeks ago I was approached by someone close to these men’s case and asked if I thought Tallahassee might be a place where three of these Uyghur men might find hospitality. “I’m asking you,” this person said, “because I’ve heard of the First Presbyterian Church and thought that if any congregation would be willing to work on a project like this, it would be yours.”

I thought about that. I thought about the welcome our session gave to the family of John Spenkelink, back in 1979, when Florida reinstituted the death penalty and John’s family needed somewhere to hold John’s funeral. I remembered the time refugees from El Salvador occupied our chapel, living there during Holy Week to raise awareness of their nation’s plight. I thought of the Vietnamese families we have embraced through the years and of the folks fleeing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago. I remembered all that Cajun food being cooked in our kitchen, and how I didn’t eat anywhere else for a whole week.

More than that, I remembered how the faith communities of Tallahassee pulled together to minister to those 700 Katrina victims who found themselves in Tallahassee. I remembered sitting around the table with Christian pastors and clergy from Temple Israel and Masjid Al-Nahl, one of the two local mosques, planning pastoral care for the folks at the Red Cross Center. I thought about the conversations I’ve been having with colleagues in the organization called “Tallahassee Interfaith Clergy,” which is co-chaired by me and Rabbi Jack Romberg.

I put all that together in my head and I told that person, “Yes. I think the congregations of Tallahassee would be up to that challenge.”

In the past few days the momentum has been picking up. I sent out an e-mail to my ministerial colleagues explaining the situation. Every time I check my e-mail I get another message saying, “Yes, we’ll help.” We’re talking with a local Presbyterian pastor who worked for three years resettling refugees up in northern Virginia. He’s an expert. He says he’ll show us how it’s done.

And as we worship the triune God this morning, a conversation is taking place with the governing body at a local mosque. “If you’ll take the lead,” we’re telling the Muslim community, “the other faith communities in Tallahassee will help. We’ll stand with you, and together we’ll follow God’s call.”

I said this was a sermon, and it is. It’s a commentary on today’s reading from Romans.  I didn’t know it at the time, but all week long the Holy Spirit has been writing my sermon for me, putting into context these words from the Apostle Paul.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not covet” and any other commandment are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

For Christians, the meaning of the word “neighbor” is found not in a dictionary, but in a story. You know that story well — the parable of the Good Samaritan. Neighbors, that story implies, are not just the folks who live nearby; they’re the folks whose need cries out from a ditch on the road to Jericho, or from a Red Cross Service Center, or even from a prison on Guantánamo Bay.

Seldom does that cry arise at a convenient time, and it almost always involves crossing some kind of boundary. That’s the nature of “neighbor” in the Christian tradition. Jews and Muslims have different traditions, but I suspect they would arrive at much the same conclusion when it comes to the story I’ve been telling you.

A patriot might say that what our nation has done to these men is shameful, and ought to be put right in order to restore our nation’s honor. A prophet might say that they have suffered a great injustice. A Christian might well agree with both the patriot and the prophet, but when it comes right down to it, these men are simply our neighbors, and Christ commands us to love our neighbors.

The story of these Uyghur refugees is far from finished. The congregations of Tallahassee will be writing the next chapters. Let us pray that when their story is told to our children, they will give thanks to God for our faithful response to God’s call.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

One Response

  1. No Escape from Guantanamo: Uighurs Lose Again in US Court « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS says...

    […] Guantلnamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantلnamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantلnamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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