A recently appointed official of a county in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region is cracking down on religious activities—from mandatory daily prayers to traditional burial rites—of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, causing much anxiety among the community.
Vice governor Haki had severely tightened restrictions since taking office two years ago, forcing residents to hold religious practices normally performed at home in mosques, where women and anyone under age 18 are not permitted, according to Uyghurs in Ghulja county in Xinjiang’s Ili autonomous prefecture.
A Uyghur woman said that in a recent incident plainclothes officers took photos of a group of children attending a mosque with their parents as part of prayer ceremonies for a recently deceased relative, prompting a “Cultural Revolution-style self-criticism” led by Haki in the house of worship.
“The event, which was held on Feb. 7 at a mosque, was a prayer event for the deceased during the 40 days following his passing,” the woman told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Normally, such kinds of events are held at home with relatives and neighbors, and of course the children were included.”
During the decade of the chaotic Cultural Revolution from 1966, religious persecution was widespread with many religious officials and laymen jailed and even killed.
According to the woman, the 40 days of prayers held after a death in the family are no longer considered purely a religious activity as foods are traditionally served and guests invited, making the practice more of an “ethnic custom.”
But after Haki came to power, he ordered that the prayer ceremonies must be held in mosques, limiting the kinds of people who could attend.
She said that during the ceremony on Feb. 7 plainclothes policemen in the mosque took pictures of the children with their parents and sent them to Haki’s attention.
“The county’s vice governor Haki stormed into the mosque before the event was even over and started a self-criticism meeting,” she said.
“He started pointing fingers even at elders and criticized them harshly, which is unimaginable [in our culture]. Only people such as Haki would employ these kinds of unconventional measures.”
RFA’s attempts to contact the local government about the incident by telephone went unanswered.
Residents of Ghulja said that the recent incident was only one of several examples of Haki’s clampdown on religious practices over the last two years.
“Religious restrictions have been tightened. It is especially since vice governor Haki was appointed to oversee religious affairs that these kinds of restrictions were doubled,” a Uyghur teacher told RFA.
“Activities like reciting the Quran and celebrating the Prophet Mohammed's birthday—which were normally held at home without any problems—are restricted now,” the teacher said.
“Nowadays, not only do you have to have permission from the government to hold such kinds of events, but also you have to hold them in the mosques.”
The teacher said that special officials had been appointed to make a blacklist of men under the age of 50 who wear beards, women who wear a hijab—a veil that covers a Muslim woman’s face when in the presence of nonrelated men—and youths known to have attended mosque before the age of 18.
“There are now police who stand in front of mosques, checking people who enter for Friday prayers,” the teacher said.
A young Uyghur woman told RFA that Haki, who had been an active participant in the Cultural Revolution, had been promoted from the position of a town governor to vice governor of Ghulja county for his “harsh and excessive implementation of the Chinese government’s ethnic and religious policies.”
She said that he is reviled within the Uyghur community and is commonly called names including “Haki the Illiterate.”
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness in Xinjiang despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities often link Uyghurs in Xinjiang to violent separatist groups, but experts familiar with the region have said Beijing exaggerates what it calls a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.