Plans to relocate a 200-year-old Muslim cemetery in a city in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region have sparked mass protests among ethnic Uyghurs angry over the sale of the sacred site for a business venture.
Authorities in Shihezi in north of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region had planned to start moving the graveyard—where some Uyghurs believe soldiers who had fought for independence for the mostly Muslim minority group are buried—next week.
The population of Shihezi is mostly made up of Han Chinese, who are accused by Uyghurs of displacing them from their traditional homeland and depriving them of economic opportunities under strict Beijing rule.
Hundreds of Uyghurs protested Wednesday at the Liugong Village Muslim Cemetery site in Shihezi, which had been sold to a businessman from the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou last year.
The head of the Shihezi Mosque, imam Memet Haji, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the authorities planned to relocate the cemetery to the Khizil Tagh (in Chinese, Hongshan) area, about a one-hour drive away.
He said he was unhappy about the move but there was nothing he could do about it.
In recent days, the authorities had told Uyghur families that if they did not move their relatives’ graves to the new site, they would exhume the remains themselves and have them destroyed, one local source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
More than 1,000 Uyghurs gathered at the cemetery to protest the relocation plans on Wednesday, one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A large group of armed police dispatched from the regional capital Urumqi arrived that afternoon to stop the protest, the source said.
After police warned demonstrators that they would arrest men taking part in the protest, women protesters camped out at the cemetery on Wednesday and Thursday nights and remained locked in a standoff with police on Friday, he said.
A local resident who witnessed the protest said the sale of the cemetery land had touched a nerve in the community because it was not the first instance they had seen of a land grab involving Uyghurs.
“They have taken away our land and our descendants’ land, and now they are trying to take our forefathers’ land,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Previous plans abandoned
Staff at several Shihezi government offices and police departments contacted by RFA refused to comment on the protests.
Elshat Hasan, a Uyghur exile from Shihezi now living in the U.S., said authorities had previously tried to move the cemetery in 2001 and 2002, but abandoned the plans after locals opposed them.
The graveyard, where some 10,000 bodies are buried, contains the graves of some soldiers who died while fighting for Uyghur independence the first half of the 20th century, he said.
Disputes over land grabs—a phenomenon also common in the rest of China—have exacerbated ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur group.
Some 5 percent of the 630,000 people living in Shihezi, where Han Chinese settled after a military-run agricultural corps set up shop there six decades ago, are Muslims.
Uyghurs traditionally bury their dead in accordance with Islamic tradition that forbids cremation, the practice followed by most Han Chinese.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur and Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.