Uyghur Activist Appointed as Commissioner to U.S. Religion Watchdog 

An activist for the rights of the Muslim Uyghur community in China’s Xinjiang province has made history by becoming the first member of that minority group to be appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The activist, Nury Turkel, was appointed to the USCIRF May 22 by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. Five days earlier, the House passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which imposes sanctions on foreign individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The legislation passed the Senate in early May, shortly after the USCIRF, in its 2020 annual report, included China in a list of 14 “Countries of Particular Concern” for “engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” The report recommended that the U.S. impose targeted sanctions on Chinese government officials and agencies responsible for severe violations of religious freedoms.

A bipartisan federal government body within the State Department, USCIRF has nine commissioners appointed by the President and leaders of both political parties in the Senate and the House. The commissioners are responsible for monitoring religious freedom overseas and making policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State and Congress.

A lawyer by profession, Turkel is “a great asset to the Commission’s work,” USCIRF chair Tony Perkins said in a May 26 news statement. “He will especially bring insight and knowledge to the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in China and elsewhere.”

Turkel was born in a reeducation camp during China’s tumultuous decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended with the death of the nation’s premier, Mao Zedong, in 1976. He spent “the first several months of his life in captivity with his mother,” Perkins said, adding that Turkel came to the U.S. as a student in 1995 and was granted asylum in 1998.

After earning a master’s degree in international relations and a Juris Doctorate from the American University in Washington, D.C., Turkel went on to become a lawyer—the first U.S.-educated Uyghur attorney, Perkins said.

Based in Washington, D.C., Turkel is currently chairman of the board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, which he cofounded in 2003. As president of the Uyghur American Association, he was instrumental in raising public awareness about the persecution of his community in China as well as in obtaining the release in 2005 of Rebiya Kader, a Uyghur prisoner of conscience, according to Perkins.

Over the years, said Perkins, Turkel has testified before Congress about concentration camps in which hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are confined in China. He has also advocated for legislation to counter Beijing’s atrocities and many of his recommendations have been included in pending congressional bills, Perkins said.

“He will bring diverse insight, especially given his experience, expertise, and a demonstrated commitment to advocating for members of religious minority communities,” USCIRF vice chair Gayle Manchin said in the Commission’s news statement.

Pelosi, too, praised Turkel. In a news statement, the House Speaker said she is “confident that he will continue to be a powerful voice for the Uyghur people and the cause of justice around the world.” 


From its beginnings, the Church of Scientology has recognized that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. In a world where conflicts are often traceable to intolerance of others’ religious beliefs and practices, the Church has, for more than 50 years, made the preservation of religious liberty an overriding concern.

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