An unrelenting police campaign of conducting raids on Muslim Uyghur homes for religious materials has raised concerns about a crackdown on religion in China’s restive northwestern Xinjiang region.
Uyghur residents in counties across the region, which is home to China’s mostly Muslim minority Uyghur ethnic group, have complained that their homes are subject to constant raids, mostly around midnight.
One Uyghur farmer from Kucha county in central Xinjiang said police had raided his home 15 times in 2012, each time during the night.
But he said some of his compatriots had their homes searched about 100 times.
“Some people’s homes were searched more than a hundred times, while others searched only two or three times. It depends on who they suspect, but they search every Uyghur home,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Police search always at night without notice, and they don’t care if kids are sleeping or not,” he said.
But Xinjiang police defended the raids as necessary to contain what they call illegal religious activities.
A businessman in Chakilik county (in Chinese, Ruoqiang), near Korla city in southeastern Xinjiang, said the raids in his area were not limited to the 100-day “strike hard” campaigns that authorities carry out periodically to sweep up thousands of people suspected of being involved in criminal activities.
There was “no fixed time period” for the raids on the Uyghur homes, he said.
The businessman said that the raids had been frequent since violence between Han Chinese and Uyghurs rocked the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in July 2009, in China’s worst ethnic clashes in decades.
"They have searched every Uyghur home [in the area] since the July incident,” he said, adding that the topic was dangerous for him to discuss.
The 2009 violence prompted a harsh crackdown in the Xinjiang region, where Uyghurs chafe under Beijing’s rule and say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls.
China has vowed to crack down on the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, but experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur “separatists” and uses its “war on terror” to take the heat off of domestic policies that cause unrest.
Another farmer, from Karakash county (in Chinese, Moyu county) of Hotan (Hetian) prefecture in southeastern Xinjiang, said police had repeatedly come to his home looking for illegal religious materials.
“My home was only searched four times in 2012, because each time they came they left empty-handed as they couldn’t find anything,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Under China’s regulations on religious affairs and on publishing, authorities may confiscate religious texts published without authorization, including Korans.
Religious activity is strictly controlled in the Xinjiang region, where children under 18 are forbidden from receiving a religious education or attending mosques, and where religious study in an unsanctioned location is barred.
Uyghurs have been imprisoned for “engaging in illegal religious activities” and “publishing and distributing illegal religious materials,” including after police raids on unsanctioned Islamic schools.
Police asked by RFA about house raids said they were part of efforts to curb religion-related crime.
"We search homes to crack down on illegal religious activities," said a police officer at the Hongjiao police station in Aksu city.
The farmer from Kucha said that in recent raids police had allowed Uyghurs to keep commonly available religious materials, if they are “legally published” and sold in bookstores. But authorities had previously confiscated legally published materials as well.
“Before, they confiscated anything related to religion, regardless of whether it was legally published or not, including the Koran or other books on how to pray.”
Despite some easing of the restrictions, authorities were cracking down on audio files of recitations of the Koran or religious songs kept on cell phones, he said.
“It is even impossible for us to download Koran recitations to listen to on our phones. If the police found out we would be arrested right away.”
The raids spark concern about the level of restrictions on the practice of Islam in Xinjiang.
One Uyghur businessman in Ghulja (also known as Ili, or, in Chinese, Yining) in the north of Xinjiang, said police raids have targeted homes of the devout.
"I’ve heard that they search suspected homes, especially those of obviously religious people,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Erkin Sidik, a Uyghur exile and senior engineer at NASA in the U.S., said he believes the policy of searching houses for religious materials is part of a strategy to limit Islamic practice in the region.
“China would like to eradicate the Islamic religious identity of Uyghurs to assimilate them, but using this kind of extreme force will not succeed. On the contrary, it will increase the resistance.”
Reported by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.