Uyghurs Targeted Over Desert Prayers

Members of a mostly Muslim ethnic group in China are detained and fined for worshiping outside their own villages.

Police Xinjiang 305 A Chinese policeman watches ethnic Uyghurs in Kashgar, Aug. 7, 2008.
AFP Photo

HONG KONG—Local authorities in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region are detaining and fining members of the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority for conducting prayers outside their home villages, residents and officials say.

Several hundred Uyghurs who gathered to pray at a Qariqash county shrine in Khotan prefecture, south of Kashgar, were surrounded by local police and detained for hours on March 26, one of the detained villagers said.

Village authorities, contacted by telephone, confirmed that “cross-village worship” was considered a "social crime."

It is a social crime."

Hebibullah, Ilchi village chief

Emin Niyaz, 65, who is retired and lives in Ilchi village, said that because he no longer works he had decided to travel to the Qariqash county shrine.

“Since my childhood, we have had a custom of worshiping at that shrine, so I thought there was nothing wrong with worshiping there,” Niyaz said.

“While we were worshiping, suddenly the police surrounded us. They gathered us in the shrine and then they brought us to Zawa village police station,” he said, adding that the worshipers were questioned and photographed individually.

Fined for worship

“After that they called our village chiefs and sent us back into their custody. The village chiefs brought us to the government buildings in each of our villages and detained us there,” Niyaz said.

His village chief, Niyaz said, accused the group of planning an “illegal gathering.”

“If you worship in your own village it might be all right, but if you engage in cross-village worship they say it is illegal. The village chief said that if so many people are gathering in the desert, they must have some secret motive,” Niyaz said.

The village chief said that if so many people are gathering in the desert, they must have some secret motive."

Emin Niyaz, a villager

They were also required to pay a fine or face being returned to the village police station for detention, he said.

“They told each of us to pay a 500 yuan (U.S. $70) fine … In the beginning, we begged not to pay the fine because we couldn’t afford it. But in the end, each of us had to pay to be released,” he said.

The average yearly income for an Ilchi village resident is 3,000 yuan (U.S. $440).

Niyaz said that the group was held for a total of 12 hours until all fines had been collected.

“We had no choice. Our village chiefs went to our families and relatives during the middle of the night and collected the money from them,” Niyaz said. “They detained us at 2 p.m. and we didn’t get home until 2 a.m.”

Official response

The Ilchi village chief, Hebibullah, who gave only his first name, confirmed that he had fined the group for worshiping at the shrine.

“It is a social crime. Last year 10 people died on their way to worship at a shrine. Since then, the Prefectural Party Committee has forbidden cross-village worshiping,” Hebibullah said, adding that an agreement between villagers and the government required him to impose the fine.

“The agreement includes laws about birth control, work production, social stability, and other items. Based on this agreement, I fined them 500 yuan each,” Hebibullah said.

Party Secretary Jur’et, in charge of politics and law in Ilchi village, called the incident a “sensitive political event.”

“The shrine is located 5 kms (3.1 miles) from the nearest village in the desert. Nobody used to go there to worship, but in the last two years more and more people have been going there,” Jur’et said.

Asked about a man who took villagers to the shrine in his vehicle and said he was fined 5,000 yuan (U.S. $730), Jur’et said: “His name is Metrozi. We fined him for providing transportation for an illegal gathering.”


Two days after being released, the 13 members of the Ilchi group were called in front of the rest of their village and criticized, Niyaz said.

“One of us gave a speech on behalf of the rest of us and acknowledged our crime, expressing that other people should learn their lesson from us,” he said.

But when asked if he felt guilty for committing a crime, Niyaz said he didn’t know.

“There is a stone in front of the shrine that says you can worship there. It says you cannot gamble there,” he said.

“They accused us of an illegal gathering, but how was I supposed to know that there were already so many people there?”

Uyghurs targeted

Social stability campaigns are frequently launched in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in a bid to stop petitioners from going public with their complaints and quash potential unrest, experts say.

In July last year, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, police launched a house-to-house search campaign in Gulja [in Chinese, Yining], a Uyghur city in Ili prefecture known as a traditional center of opposition to Beijing’s rule.

Uyghurs whose homes had been raided reported that their copies of the Quran had been confiscated by police.

Many Uyghurs, who twice enjoyed short-lived independence as the state of East Turkestan during the 1930s and 40s, oppose Beijing’s rule in Xinjiang.

Beijing blames Uyghur separatists for sporadic bombings and other violence in the Xinjiang region. But diplomats and foreign experts are skeptical.

International rights groups have accused Beijing of using the U.S. “war on terror” to crack down on nonviolent supporters of Uyghur independence.

In an April 2005 report, Human Rights Watch accused authorities of maintaining a "multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uyghurs."

At its most extreme, peaceful activists who practice their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state or party authorities are arrested, tortured, and at times executed, the report said, while more routinely many Uyghurs experience harassment in their daily lives.

Original reporting in Uyghur by Shohret Hoshur. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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