Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are holding hundreds of ethnic minority Uyghur Muslims after they returned from overseas pilgrimage, sources in the region told RFA.
A rights lawyer in the region who asked not to be named said courts across the region are being ordered by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to "deal with" anyone engaging in any form of illegal religious activity.
"There is a huge crackdown in Xinjiang," the lawyer said. "In March, I went to lodge appeal proceedings, and I came across a detention center—the Changji Detention Center—where there were 200-300 Uyghurs who were being held after coming back from pilgrimage in the Middle East."
"They were all being held for investigation and screening," he said.
Article 21 of the "26 Forms of Illegal Religious Activity" leaked to RFA in February forbids anyone from traveling overseas on pilgrimage, including the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, with companies not endorsed by China's religious affairs authorities.
But the lawyer said the authorities appear to be pro-actively prosecuting anyone who breaks any of the rules on the newly emerged list.
"The judge told us [lawyers] that there has already been a case involving a Uyghur who held a gathering in his home," the lawyer said. "It was winter, just after Chinese New Year, and there was nothing happening, so he held a religious gathering for Muslims."
"The judge said the trial has already taken place, and they are waiting to sentence him," the lawyer added.
Article 4 of the rules forbids "Any preaching, Quranic interpretation or gathering run by religious figures or religious believers, without prior approval, outside the place of worship pertaining to that religion."
And Article 3 bans "any religious activity organized by persons not in possession of the relevant permits for a religious personage or who have not undergone patriotic education."
Middle East study
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress group, said Uyghurs who have studied in the Middle East are also being detained on their return.
"There are currently more than 100 Uyghurs being held in Changji, and also some [Han Chinese] Hui Muslims," Raxit told RFA on Tuesday. "The authorities are charging them with illegal pilgrimage, and for taking part in illegal religious activities."
"Some of them are also facing charges of religious extremism or terrorism," he said.
Raxit said the Xinjiang authorities have stepped up their crackdown on "illegal religious activities" in recent months, based on the rules.
The anonymous lawyer said that none of those held for religious activities will likely be able to find employment once they have a criminal record.
He said even those who already have migrant labor jobs in the north of the region are constantly under the eye of local police.
"The Uyghurs who find jobs as migrant workers in the north of Xinjiang have to be investigated once every three months by the local police station, it's that strict," the lawyer said.
"They told me that southern Xinjiang is very poor, and that people there can't get migrant jobs because bosses won't hire them," he said.
Last month, authorities in Xinjiang began ordering residents to hand in all digital devices for “checking” at local police stations by Aug. 1, as part of an operation targeting “terrorist videos."
Anyone who fails to submit the above devices and content by the stated time will be "dealt with according to the relevant national laws, according to leaked local community notices seen by RFA.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.