HONG KONG—Authorities near the western Silk Road city of Kashgar in China's troubled region of Xinjiang have detained a group of ethnic Uyghur women who had formed a group to study the Quran, overseas groups said.
"More than 30 Uyghur women were raided in force by the Chinese police in recent days after they got together to study the Quran," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
"They detained all those present and confiscated more than 40 Qurans."
Raxit said that the Chinese government said the women were engaging in illegal religious activities.
"They forced them to take off their headscarves and detained two of them on criminal charges," he said.
While the rest of the women were released, they were fined amounts ranging from 500 yuan (U.S. $73) to 5,000 yuan (U.S. $732) for their participation in the study group, Raxit added.
'Counter to policies'
He said that the raids on Muslims undertaking normal religious activities ran counter to the ruling Communist Party's officially published policies on ethnic minorities.
"The Chinese government gives out that it is in the process of consolidating and stabilizing the region ... These women had nothing to do with any political matter," Raxit said.
According to a report published on the Web site of the Kashgar district Communist Party and official education center, authorities in Maralbeshi [in Chinese, Bachu] county, where the raid took place, had recently hired more than 150 people to act as informants and intelligence gatherers in the county as part of its campaign to beef up control over the region.
Of the 26 pieces of useful information they received, the report said, one had concerned an "underground" Quranic study group.
Calls to the Maralbeshi county Party organization department, which runs the education center, went unanswered during office hours Monday.
The report said the education center was running an information-gathering campaign in a bid to encourage a "safer atmosphere" in the county.
An officer who answered the phone at the local police station in Maralbeshi county refused to comment.
'Trampling religious beliefs'
However, Raxit said he feared that the heavy-handed approach would foment more ethnic strife, which flared into violence in the regional capital of Urumqi last July, killing nearly 200 people and sparking hundreds of arrests and detentions.
"It is just typical of the Chinese government to seriously trample the freedom of religious beliefs, including those rights guaranteed to citizens in its own Constitution," he said.
"I believe that China has taken another step towards stimulating and provoking further unrest."
Beijing-based Tibetan writer and blogger Woeser, who takes a keen interest in ethnic issues in China, said the authorities have long enforced similar restrictions on religious activity in Xinjiang and in Tibetan regions under Chinese rule.
"This sort of official control didn't just begin recently," she said. "But it has been tightened up since the July 5 unrest in Xinjiang last year."
"It's the same in Tibet, where we have a similar set of controls on cultural and religious beliefs, and a similar pattern of clashes, controls, and protests which happen regularly," Woeser said.
Raxit said the Chinese government appears to have lost confidence in its previous system of controls as a means of enforcing stability in Xinjiang.
"Because of this, they are now taking even tougher measures, stepping up every method of control, monitoring, suppression, and terror in the region in order to obstruct people from what had previously been considered normal religious activity," he said.
Call for restraint
He said the World Uyghur Congress has called on Uyghurs in China to show restraint to avoid providing the authorities with an excuse for military intervention in the region.
He also called on the international community to show a high level of concern for the situation in Xinjiang.
Authorities in Xinjiang frequently require religious groups to submit texts and curricula for examination before they may be used in worship or in school settings.
A new directive published in the western Aksu district of Xinjiang last month contained 10 measures that it said aimed to “strengthen village management of grassroots religious organizations.”
They included the requirement that all religious groups register with the village branch of the religious affairs department, allow monthly inspections of religious sites and special meetings with authorities, and obtain prior approval of the content of any religious services.
The regulations ban any person from conducting religious activities outside pre-approved religious sites on pain of investigation as an unlicensed imam (religious teacher).
Original reporting in Mandarin by He Ping. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.