The head of the largest mosque in China, who has been highly critical of violence by ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs in the troubled Xinjiang region, has been stabbed to death, according to witnesses and local officials.
Jume Tahir, the Uyghur imam of the Id Kah mosque in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in China's western Xinjiang region, was found in a pool of blood outside the prayer house on Wednesday morning.
Abdugheni Dolkun, director of a neighborhood stability committee in Kashgar city, said that Tahir, who was in his 70s, was assassinated.
"He was a patriotic religious person, and he lost his life in an assassination," Dolkun told RFA's Uyghur Service. "Right now, we are busy making arrangements for his funeral."
An owner of a shop at a market near the mosque said he was about to open for business when he saw police busy clearing a huge crowd that had gathered at the murder scene.
"I saw the body lying in front of the Id Kah mosque and when I asked one of those leaving the scene about the commotion and the police presence, he said the body was that of Jume Tahir," the shop-owner said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another Kashgar resident said he went to the residence of Tahir, who is also the vice-president of the China Islamic Association, late Wednesday to "pay my last respects" to him.
"I do not know who killed him or why he was killed; nobody dared to ask this question. His family members and relatives were weeping. They said he was assassinated," he said.
"What I heard was that as he was returning from the mosque, he was stabbed to death."
Tahir has been a longtime imam of the nearly 600-year-old Id Kah mosque, the largest in China, which houses thousands of worshipers during Friday prayers.
The mosque, which sits on an area covering 16,800 square meters (180,833 square feet), was built in 1442.
Officials could not be immediately contacted to ascertain the motive of Tahir's murder, which occurred two days after bloody riots erupted in Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county in Kashgar prefecture during the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of the Ramadan fasting month.
The riots began on Monday morning when groups of Uyghurs attacked a police station and government offices in Elishku township, prompting police to fire at the crowd, leaving many dead or wounded, local officials told RFA.
The Uyghurs were apparently angry over restrictions during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the police killing of a family of five earlier this month, according to local officials.
High death toll
The official Xinhua news agency said "dozens" were shot dead by police but the Germany-based exile World Uyghur Congress claimed the death toll may have reached "nearly 100."
The Yarkand incident was one of the worst clashes in Xinjiang since bloody riots between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009 that left almost 200 people dead
Tahir had often been cited in Chinese state media criticizing Uyghurs involved in violence in their Xinjiang homeland, where they complain that they are subject to political, cultural, and religious repression for opposing Chinese rule.
A teacher in the Kashgar city said Tahir was disliked by many Uyghurs since the Urumqi riots when he backed the bloody government crackdown on the minority group.
"He has turned the mosque into a Communist Party propaganda school," the teacher said, declining to identify himself.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.