Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, is among more than 70 faith leaders publicly declaring that the Uighurs are facing “one of the most egregious human tragedies since the Holocaust”, and that those responsible for the persecution of the Chinese Muslim minority must be held accountable.

The incarceration of at least a million Uighurs and other Muslims in prison camps, where they are reported to face starvation, torture, murder, sexual violence, slave labour and forced organ extraction, is a potential genocide, say the clerics.

The statement, signed by five serving Church of England bishops, the Coptic archbishop of London, the Dalai Lama’s representative in Europe, plus cardinals, imams and rabbis, says the plight of the Uighurs “calls into question most seriously the willingness of the international community to defend universal human rights for everyone”.

It adds: “The clear aim of the Chinese authorities is to eradicate the Uighur identity. China’s state media has stated that the goal is to ‘break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins’ … High-level Chinese government documents speak of ‘absolutely no mercy’. Parliamentarians, governments and jurists have a responsibility to investigate.”

Last month, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against its Uighur population and said sanctions against those responsible could not be ruled out.

Speaking after Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, suggested that talk of concentration camps was “fake”, Raab said the UK would work with its allies to take appropriate action.

“The reports on the human aspect of this – from forced sterilisation to the education camps – are reminiscent of something we have not seen for a very long time,” he told the BBC. “We want a positive relationship with China but we can’t see behaviour like that and not call it out.”

But, he added, the international community had to be “careful” before claiming that the treatment of the Uighurs met the legal definition of genocide.

As a Jew, the sight of people being boarded onto trains and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing

The faith leaders say: “After the Holocaust, the world said ‘Never Again’. Today, we repeat those words ‘Never Again’, all over again…. We make a simple call for justice, to investigate these crimes, hold those responsible to account and establish a path towards the restoration of human dignity.”

Their statement comes after comparisons were made last month between the Holocaust and atrocities against the Uighurs in a letter from the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, to the Chinese ambassador in Britain.

She noted “the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.”

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, tweeted: “As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people being shaven-headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing. That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorised, victimised, intimidated and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself.”

A million Uighurs, who live mostly in the Xinjiang province in north-western China, have been forced into what China describes as “re-education camps”.

Former detainees have described the camps as de facto prisons implementing mass brainwashing and obedience to the Communist party. Evidence has emerged of physical and psychological torture, forced sterilisation of women and other methods of population reduction.

China insists that Uighur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting civil unrest and sabotage.

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