HONG KONG—Authorities in northwestern China have begun confiscating the passports of Muslims, mostly ethnic Uyghurs, in an apparent bid to prevent them from making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, local residents and officials say.
An officer who answered the phone at the Tengritagh district public security bureau [police department] of the Xinjiang regional capital, Urumqi, said local residents were required to "register" their passports with local neighborhood committees, the basic building blocks of social control in China.
“The authorities of local residential offices are collecting the passports,” he told RFA’s Uyghur service.
“Local residential offices are collecting the passports in order to register them...The authorities will keep the passports for the public. If they want to go to other countries, they can come to fetch their passports. The authorities will give the passports back to them accordingly.”
I think the word is that it is to prevent some problems, like preventing people from going on the Hajj pilgrimage. So, that is why they are collecting,
“The [passports] will become invalid if they do not hand them in.”
An official at a neighborhood committee in a town near the city of Kashgar confirmed the move, adding that passports were being collected only from Muslims, especially the Uyghur people.
“Today is the 18th,” the official said. “We were told to collect them within five days, and we've just started this afternoon ... the Muslims' and the Uyghur people's passports.”
“I think the word is that it is to prevent some problems, like preventing people from going on the Hajj pilgrimage. So, that is why they are collecting [them],” the official said.
He said local governments, provincial government, and the police were cooperating to accomplish the task.
“Here what's happened. They've ordered us to collect all the passports within five days and the authorities will finish investigating and registering the passports within 20-odd days. The authorities are not only collecting a few people's passports...They are collecting all the passports. We do not really know what is happening in other parts of Xinjiang,” he added.
“Every Muslim who owns a passport must hand it to the authorities.”
On June 19, the Tengritagh News Web site printed an article titled "Tightening the Pilgrimage Policy and Protecting the Public,” which carried a report on a speech by Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Party chief Wang Lequan the previous day to religious leaders from the Bureau of Religious Administration.
Wang called on the government to tighten its pilgrimage policy and to harshly punish "illegal" pilgrimage organizers. He said the government should halt underground pilgrimage activities and either restructure the current pilgrimage policy or make new pilgrimage policy.
The Xinjiang authorities began to confiscate passports immediately following the speech.
All able-bodied Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, birthplace and holy city of Islam, once in a lifetime if they can afford it. Additional pilgrimages are recommended.
With around 2 million Muslims making the pilgrimage annually, airlines and operators offer specialized Hajj packages. This year’s Hajj will begin Dec. 18, so the passport registration drive comes just as people would start to think about booking tickets.
RFA’s Uyghur service was contacted initially by Uyghurs overseas who said their parents’ passports had been taken, making them unable to join them on the pilgrimage.
The Hajj is traditionally undertaken with family, or with fellow pilgrims from a local mosque, and would constitute a deep show of unity for any group making the pilgrimage together.
Uyghurs, who number more than 16 million, constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1930s and 40s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.
Original reporting in Uyghur by Guljekre. RFA Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.