Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region are confiscating Qurans and prayer mats from Muslim Uyghurs in the seat of Bayin’gholin Mongol (in Chinese, Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, according to official sources.
Information recently posted on the Facebook accounts of residents of Korla (Kuerle) city suggested that Uyghurs were required to attend “self-confession meetings” on Sept. 25, during which they had to hand over “all remaining prayer mats and religious books” to administrators.
When contacted by RFA’s Uyghur Service, a staff member who answered the phone at Korla’s government office said he was unaware of such meetings taking place in the city.
But officials with Korla’s Saybagh Residential Committee and Qara Yulghun village confirmed the meetings took place last week and said they were part of a campaign to collect Islamic religious items from area Muslims that began in the end of 2016.
When asked about the meeting that occurred in his district, the cadre from Saybagh told RFA that such self-confession gatherings had taken place there “for several months.”
He said that while no one who attended last week’s meeting had “admitted their failings,” authorities were able to collect 16 “books containing religious content and also Islamic journals.”
No one handed in prayer mats at the meeting, the cadre said, but authorities have confiscated 5,000-6,000 mats since the Saybagh campaign began in February.
“Those who are bringing payer mats in these days say they only recently found them because they had been misplaced,” he said, adding that authorities are “working very hard to implement the rules.”
A cadre from Qara Yulghun village told RFA that 657 residents attended a similar meeting in his village between 7:00 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. on Sept. 25.
“People have already handed in their prayer mats and books, as we have been continuously propagating these rules,” he said, adding that authorities had collected around 400 books and 250 prayer mats since “the end of last year.”
“We are encouraging people to hand in not only their Qurans, but all religious items … There are so many different religious books that we are asking for them all so that we can examine them and decide whether any can be handed back [to their owners].”
The cadre said there was no timetable or guidelines regulating how authorities would determine whether religious materials were “correct or incorrect” and could be returned.
The four religious scholars in the cadre’s village owned a “large quantity of religious materials,” he said, all of which had been confiscated.
Authorities took personal books from the scholars as well as those they had received while at training college, the cadre said, confirming that even state-sanctioned religious materials had been seized.
All of the books were subsequently delivered to the United Front Work Department—a Communist Party agency responsible for handling relations with China’s non-party elite that he said had issued the verbal order to confiscate them.
Last week, sources told RFA that officials across Xinjiang had been warning neighborhoods and mosques that Uyghur Muslims must hand in the items or face harsh punishment if they are found later.
Exile Uyghur groups said reports had emerged from Kashgar, Hotan and other regions of similar practices starting earlier in September.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a Sept. 28 press briefing in Beijing, however, that the situation in Xinjiang was “sound” and dismissed the reports as “groundless rumors.”
In May, official sources told RFA that authorities were confiscating all Qurans published more than five years ago due to “extremist content” amid an ongoing campaign against “illegal” religious items owned by ethnic Uyghur residents.
The Qurans were appropriated as part of the “Three Illegals and One Item” campaign underway in Xinjiang that bans “illegal” publicity materials, religious activities, and religious teaching, as well as items deemed by authorities to be tools of terrorism—including knives, flammable objects, remote-controlled toys, and objects sporting symbols related to Islam, they said.
Overseas Uyghur groups slammed the Quran ban at the time as merely another bid by Chinese authorities to exert more control over the Xinjiang region by linking their ethnic group’s cultural traditions to terrorism and promoting more government-friendly versions.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, 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 some Uyghurs 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.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.