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Profile Source: Copyright © Operation China, Paul Hattaway
Before 1921 the various Turkic groups in Xinjiang called themselves by the name of the oasis near which they lived. When Turkic leaders met in Tashkent in 1921, they chose the name Uygur as the mark of their identity. Uygur means "unity" or "alliance."
Uygur is a Turkic language, related to Uzbek, Kazak, and Kirgiz. It also contains loanwords from Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Russian, and Mongolian.
In the mid-eighth century the Uygur inhabited part of present-day Mongolia. Around AD 840 they were attacked from the north by the Kirgiz and fled southwest to their current homeland.
Many Uygur cultivate cotton, grapes, melons, and fruit trees through an ingenious irrigation system which pipes mountain water into the desert oases.
Most Uygur follow a folk Islam mixed with superstition. Islam is stronger in southern Xinjiang than in the north. Today, although almost all Uygur confess to be Muslims, few are aware of the time in history when the majority of Uygur were Christians.
When Nestorian missionaries first appeared in China in 635 AD, after they had already been working in Central Asia for a century. One of the forerunners of today's Uygur were the Turkic Keirat tribe. By 1009, 200,000 Keirat had been baptized. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries "the whole tribe were considered Christian." It has recently been estimated there were as many as eight million Christians in Central Asia. In the fourteenth century Christianity disappeared from among the Uygur for 500 years, and they converted to Islam. The Swedish Missionary Society recommenced work among the Uygur in 1892. By the 1930s more than 300 Uygurs had been converted, primarily in Kashgar. When Abdullah Khan came to Yarkant in 1933 he expelled the missionaries and eliminated the Uygur believers in a mass execution. Abdullah claimed, "It is my duty, according to our law, to put you to death, because by your preaching you destroyed the faith of some of us." Despite the presence of many Han Christians in Xinjiang, few have a vision to reach the Uygurs. One visitor reported, "Many [church] leaders openly acknowledge, without guilt or shame, that they do not have such a burden for these people." One church elder, when asked about evangelizing Uygurs, "responded by shouting, 'You're crazy!'" Today about 50 known Uygur Christians meet in two small fellowships in China, although 400 Uygur believers have recently emerged in neighboring Kazakstan. Recent reports indicate that many Uygur in China may be on the verge of accepting Christ.