Members of the Uyghur ethnic minority in northwest China have expressed anger and concern about controls over imams after a local Communist Party committee held a meeting in a place of worship.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Peyziwat County Committee held the meeting at the Second Village Mosque in Xinjiang’s Kashgar prefecture on July 24, according to the official Tianshan Net website.
“To hold communist activities in a mosque is a kind of ridicule to our religion and our humanity,” said Abdurahman Kasim, a religious scholar from the county.
At the meeting, 35 imams attended a speech contest organized by the Unity and Friendship Department.
The topic of the speech contest was “Love the Country, Promote the Homeland.”
Local people contacted religious figures to express their anger over the issue.
“So far, within a week I have received at least 100 calls from the public, all of them complaining about the issue. I understand that they cannot express their opinions to officials because of the political situation in our homeland,” Abdurahman Kasim said.
“We did not say anything to the government about the issue, because we know what the cost of expression on this topic would be, especially these days. But officials should know that our silence does not mean we agree,” he added.
A staff member from the Unity and Friendship Department of the CCP’s Peyziwat Committee confirmed that the meeting was held in a mosque but refused comment on the issue.
Influence on imams
The meeting reflects the central government’s strong concern for controlling religious leadership among Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in China with their home in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
One of the 19 participants in the speech contest, Abdurehimjan, a 41-year-old imam from a mosque in nearby Canbaz village, said, “I heard that people are blaming me as a traitor, but it is no secret to anyone what the rules for imams are in society now.”
“We have to listen to officials, we have to obey regulations, we have to do many things against our will. It’s not only me—all the imams are paid by government to do that,” he said.
Since 2006, the government has paid monthly salaries of 80, 120, or 230 yuan (U.S. $12, $18, or $34) per month to imams throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, according to an official in Karamay city in charge of religious affairs.
In exchange, the government is asking imams to seek common ground between socialism and Islam and to guide the public to obey state regulations, he said.
“Patriotic education does not contradict Islam or our policy,” an official from the CCP’s Kashgar Prefectural Committee surnamed Zhang said.
“Stability is the main demand of our society, and unity is a major desire for the all the people who belong to various ethnic groups in the region,” he added.
“Also, there was nothing wrong in terms of the location of the meeting, because we discussed it with imams before holding it there and they had agreed to allow it in the mosque.”
Another staff member of the Unity and Friendship Department of Kashgar Prefecture, a Uyghur who did not wish to give his name, disagreed.
“I thought it was wrong that the activity was held in the mosque. We should respect some sensitive principles of religion, otherwise [some] activities will cause unexpected results that our government does not want to see,” the staff member said.
“I think some local officials are just hoping to receive praise from higher-level authorities and they are neglecting the feelings of the local people.”
Uyghur communities in the U.S. and Turkey have called for religious freedom in Xinjiang and said they are outraged by the lack of respect shown by the CCP towards places of worship.
President of the exiled World Uyghur Congress Rebiya Kadeer said she was shocked by the pictures of the meeting held in a mosque.
“At first, I could not believe my eyes. Actually I did not want to believe it was a mosque, but unfortunately it was,” she said.
According to Kadeer, the central government’s level of control over imams has increased over the last three decades, from watching over activities from the outside of mosques in the 1980s, to appointing and directing imams and arranging mosque activities in the 1990s.
“This is unique problem that Uyghurs are encountering. If they protest a problem, they will be punished. If they do not protest, China steps up attacks on their other rights,” Rebiya Kadeer said.
In Turkey, religious activist Abdukadir Asim said, “It is a common principle among all religions that the privacy of the place of worship is fundamental. It is a strange and abhorrent event that communist propaganda was conducted in a mosque. I don’t believe it has ever happened before, anywhere else in the world.”
He also criticized general secretary of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, who visited China last month but neglected to draw attention to the issue of religious freedoms in Xinjiang.
“The action of holding a communist activity in a mosque ridicules not only Uyghurs but also the whole Islamic world. The international community should speak out about this event.”
Kashgar is known among Uyghurs as the most religious place in Xinjiang. Kashgarians converted to Islam in the 10th century, 400 to 500 years earlier than Uyghurs in nearby cities.
Peyziwat is one of the largest counties in the prefecture, with 330,000 residents.
In June, authorities in Kashgar detained 30 women who had formed a Quran study group.
Authorities frequently require religious groups to submit texts for examination before they may be used for worship.
Regional regulations forbid mosque attendance for those under 18 years old.
Original reporting and translation by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.