Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang have banned dozens of baby names with religious meanings that are widely used by Muslims elsewhere in the world, RFA has learned.
Sources in Hotan, in the southern part of the region, had previously detailed a list of banned names in 2015, but the ban now appears to have been rolled out region-wide.
Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina are among dozens of baby names banned under ruling Chinese Communist Party's "Naming Rules For Ethnic Minorities," an official confirmed on Thursday.
An employee who answered the phone at a police station in the regional capital Urumqi confirmed that "overly religious" names are banned, and that any babies registered with such names would be barred from the "hukou" household registration system that gives access to health care and education.
"You're not allowed to give names with a strong religious flavor, such as Jihad or names like that,' the official said. "The most important thing here is the connotations of the name ... [it mustn't have] connotations of holy war or of splittism [Xinjiang independence]."
Asked if names of Islamic scholars were acceptable, the employee replied: "Get him to change it; it's the sort of thing that [could be regarded as] promoting terror and evil cults."
Asked if Yultuzay, a reference to the star and moon symbol of the Islamic faith, was acceptable, he said: "Actually the star and moon are a pagan symbol."
"[Mecca] would be a bit over-the-top ... I don't think you could call someone Saddam, either," he said in response to queries on those names.
"Just stick to the party line, and you'll be fine," he said. "[People with banned names] won't be able to get a household registration, so they will find out from the hukou office when the time comes."
"They have received training in this sort of thing over here [in Xinjiang] so they're the experts [on what is allowed]," he said.
A source meanwhile told RFA that the safest names for Uyghurs are those that sound more "mainstream."
"I have been talking to friends in Xinjiang about this, and they all say that any with potentially extremist overtones will be banned, but names like Memet ... that you see everywhere are considered more mainstream by the Chinese Communist Party," the source said.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress group, said the Chinese government is continuing to suppress traditional Uyghur culture by controlling what Uyghurs can call their children.
"In setting limits on the naming of Uyghurs, the Chinese government is in fact engaging in political persecution under another guise," Raxit told RFA. "They are afraid that people with such names will become alienated from Chinese policies in the region."
"Yultuzay, for example, is seen by the Chinese government as carrying separatist connotations, to do with religion," he said. "They are placing limits on Uyghurs' religious beliefs."
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames Uyghur extremists for terrorist attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Last month, Xinjiang authorities fired an ethnic Uyghur official for holding her wedding ceremony at home according to Islamic traditions instead of at a government-sanctioned venue.
Salamet Memetimin, the communist party secretary for Chaka township’s Bekchan village, in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Chira (Cele) county, was among 97 officials recently charged with disciplinary violations, according to an April 10 report by the state-run Hotan Daily newspaper.
Local residents said the woman was relieved of her duties for taking her marriage vows—known as “nikah” in Muslim culture—in her own home.
An official told RFA's Uyghur service that home wedding vows could give rise to unsanctioned religious leaders promoting "deviant views that contradict ethnic unity and the sovereignty of the county.”
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.