Authorities in northwestern China have detained five ethnic Uyghur Muslims for “inciting separatism” after the men refused to honor the national flag at a ceremony held inside their mosque, according to residents and exile Uyghur groups.
Local officials say the decision to raise the flag on the grounds of the mosque in mid-August was part of a larger campaign to promote patriotism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where a series of attacks in July left dozens dead and wounded.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the five men were arrested after confronting Chinese officials during the flag raising ceremony in Aksu prefecture’s Kucha county.
The five protested against the national flag being hoisted in a mosque, saying it was against Islam.
“Standing against the raising of the Chinese national flag in a mosque was the cause of the detention,” Raxit said. “The five spoke out against the Chinese officials in public, saying that raising the national flag in a mosque is wrong and goes against the principles of Islam.”
A Uyghur high school teacher in Xinjiang, who asked to remain anonymous, said that while he is not a resident of Uchosteng where the mosque is located, he had heard about the detention from acquaintances.
“The people were angry and refused to allow the raising of the Red Flag by standing hand-in-hand in front of the mosque. Finally, the officials decided to temporarily halt the flag raising campaign and reported the incident to the prefectural authorities,” the teacher said.
“No violence occurred on either side and, unexpectedly, the police also did not have a harsh response—they just got into an argument,” he said.
“But last week, a month after the event, two religious figures and three young men who had been active against the flag raising were taken away by the Kucha county secret police.”
The high school teacher said that the campaign had angered Uyghurs throughout the prefecture and that he believed the policy was a reaction to an incident in July which left some 20 people dead after a group of Uyghurs launched an attack on a police station in the western city of Hotan.
“Raising the national flag in a mosque is an insult to the Uyghurs and to Islamic principles. I believe that the campaign is retaliation for the group’s success in removing the Red Flag at the Nawagh police station and raising the Blue [flag of East Turkestan] instead.”
Uyghur groups use “East Turkestan” to refer to the Xinjiang region, which twice enjoyed short-lived independence from China during the 1930s and 40s.
Contacted by phone on Friday, Ahmet Tursun, chief of Uchosteng town, said he could not comment on the situation and was unaware that the men had been taken away by authorities.
“I had no idea about the detentions,” he said, adding that due to the politically sensitive nature of the question, he was unable to provide further details.
“I’m the one [in charge of religious issues in the town], but we have been notified by higher level authorities not to publicize the flag incident. Please contact higher officials for more information.”
But Rozi Moydin, chief of the Department of Religious Issues in Kucha county, acknowledged the event, calling it a “minor incident.”
“Nobody has protested against the national flag. It was just a few people offering a different view to the Chinese officials. In order to prevent an unexpected incident, we reported the issue to our prefectural level department,” he said.
Rozi Moydin said that the Prefectural Islamic Center decided that raising the national flag in a mosque was “not wrong” because “all people in the mosque are Chinese citizens.”
“Citizens must love and respect national symbols,” he said.
“Even so, they submitted their proposal to the regional department,” he said, which had caused authorities to halt a campaign to raise flags in mosques around the region.
“Now we are waiting for an order from the department to continue the flag raising campaign.”
Rozi Moydin said the campaign, which until the August protest had seen flags raised in 63 of 608 mosques around Kucha county, was launched “after the Hotan incident on July 18.”
Two weeks later, at least 14 people were killed and 40 others injured in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, when men wielding knives launched two separate attacks near the city's food market and shopping center.
“The regional government started an educational campaign to increase the pride of national identity. As part of the campaign, the raising of the national flag in mosques was implemented throughout the entire region,” Rozi Moydin said.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said that the flag raising campaign would do little to alleviate the frustration of the Uyghur people with Chinese rule.
“The Chinese government doesn’t understand the basic concepts of human nature. Love and respect cannot be created through forceful actions and propaganda,” she said.
“Of course, they may succeed in raising the Red Flag in buildings throughout the region, but the important thing is which flag is being raised in the heart of the Uyghur people.”
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities however blame Uyghur "separatists" for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.