China Steps Up Religious Controls Over Muslim Uyghurs

The Tomb of Sultan Sutuq Bughrahan (A.D.943-955), the first Uyghur king to convert to Islam, near Artush to the north of Kashgar. Uyghurs say Beijing has launched a protracted campaign to marginalize their faith and culture. Photo: Privite

WASHINGTON—Top Chinese officials in the northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang have called for an intensification of ‘ideological work’ among the country's ethnic Uyghur university students. Meanwhile, RFA has learned that local officials were ordered once more this year to report anyone fasting during the month of Ramadan.

“We have an agreement with the Chinese government that I am responsible for preventing students from fasting during Ramadan,” an official from a county-level religious affairs committee in the south of the region told RFA’s Uyghur service.

“If I find out that any of them have been fasting I have to report it,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

I am responsible for preventing students from fasting during Ramadan.

Beijing says there are more than 20 million Muslims in China, who have access to 40,000 Islamic places of worship, and more than 45,000 imams, or religious teachers.

But it imposes harsh restrictions on the Turkic-speaking Uyghur population, who are deeply discontented with Beijing’s rule, in the fear that Islamic activities will fuel separatist fervor there.

In most Islamic societies restaurants remain closed from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan, when the majority of the adult population is fasting. Not in Xinjiang, the official said.

Move aimed at 'stability'

“I am responsible for making sure that the restaurants stay open as normal. I have to write a report every day for the officials higher up about the situation and also I have two people on duty at night to pass on information and report to higher up,” he said.

Exiled Uyghurs say it is a frequent occurrence for Uyghur employees to be taken out for big lunches by their Chinese employers during Ramadan.

The Lop county official reported similar actions. “In our town, fasting is not allowed,” he said. “At about 4:30 p.m., before the kids leave high school, they will give them candy to eat.”

Under China’s “10 No’s” policy governing Xinjiang, young people under 18 years old are forbidden to attend mosque, or to take part in religious activities.

Beijing’s “Strike Hard” campaign against Uyghur separatists, who would like to see an independent Uyghur republic of East Turkestan, intensified following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

We must step up the management of media propaganda and publications at every level.

The campaign has used the political momentum from President George W. Bush’s war on terror to crack down on violent and non-violent advocates of change alike.

The practice of Islam in Xinjiang has become increasingly politicized as a result of this ideological linkage with separatism and terror.

In a recent speech to regional officials, deputy regional Party secretary Nu’er Baikeli called for an intensification of the Communist Party’s ideological education program in Xinjiang’s universities, suggesting that a ban on religious activities already in place at the region’s top Xinjiang University would soon be extended throughout the higher education system.

Censorship of Friday sermons

“We need to widen the territory for our propaganda work… into the classroom, study groups and community activities,” he told a conference on ideological work in Xinjiang.

“We must step up the management of media propaganda and publications at every level,” he said. “We must not give any opportunity for wrong thinking to be disseminated.”

The Lop county official confirmed reports from overseas groups that the Chinese authorities were continuing a program of heavy religious control and censorship in Xinjiang.

“No one other than government appointed imams or mullahs is allowed to give religious instruction. Also you can’t say anything that damages the relationship between ethnic groups in China [criticize Beijing],” he told RFA.

“You are only allowed to do religious activities in officially recognized mosques. The expounding on the Koran in Friday sermons is not allowed to take longer than half an hour.”

“Before Friday prayers, a higher-up official will come and ask if there are any problems from the previous week or anything that we can’t handle and need help with. They also have special interpretation guidelines for Friday’s religious guidelines. Interpreters of the Koran cannot have their own interpretations,” the official said.

Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They have twice declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the 1930s and the late 1940s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.

According to a Chinese Government white paper, in 1998 Xinjiang comprised 8 million Uyghurs, 2.5 million other ethnic minorities, and 6.4 million Han Chinese—up from 300,000 Han in 1949. Most Uyghurs are poor farmers, and at least 25 percent are illiterate.


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