Beijing Repressing Muslims of Uighur Region

Islamic Faithful Don´t Care Much for Atheist Countrymen

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XINJIANG, China, MARCH 10, 2002 ( Northwest China isn´t the most hospitable place for Muslims.

On a visit from Feb. 22 to March 7 to the two main cities of the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Keston News Service found tight restrictions on the religious practice of the native Muslim population and government attempts to woo Muslims away from their faith.

Controls on mosques were renewed in 1996 after a period of much freer Muslim practice, as Beijing seemed to have stepped up its concern about what it regards as links between Uighur separatism and Islam.

The main aim of the visit — to Urumqi, the regional capital, and Kashgar, the region´s second largest city, 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) southwest of Urumqi, was to gather information about the relationship between the state and believers (primarily Muslims) and to establish whether the Uighur separatist movement has a religious basis.

The XUAR (or Eastern Turkestan) is China´s largest province with 16% of its territory. About half of the estimated 16.5 million people are Chinese and the other half are Turkic-speaking nationalities of Muslim background (Uighurs 42%, Kazakhs 6.2% and Kyrgyz 1%).

Historically, Eastern Turkestan forms one ethno-cultural region with Central Asia. The native Turkic-speaking peoples are close in language, culture, customs and history to the native peoples of the Central Asian republics.

In ancient times the Uighurs had a powerful civilization, which had an enormous influence not only on Central Asia but also on China. In 1759, under pressure from Manchurian-Chinese forces, the Uighurs lost their independence. The occupied territory became known as Sinkiang (Xinjiang — «New Frontier» in Chinese). Since their conquest by China the Uighurs have rebelled over 400 times.

Relations between Uighurs and Chinese became especially tense in 1950, when Beijing began the mass settlement of Chinese in Eastern Turkestan. While in 1949 there were only 200,000 Chinese, today there are about 8 million.

Since the early 1990s a powerful Uighur separatist underground in the XUAR has resorted to occasional acts of terrorism and spontaneous rebellions. In 1990 a bus was blown up in Kashgar and in 1992 another in Urumqi. In 1990, after the authorities denied believers access to the mosque, there was an uprising in the settlement of Baren, a suburb of Kashgar. In 1995 in the town of Khotan, 530 kilometers (330 miles) east of Kashgar, there was an uprising after the authorities replaced the local imam.

The most serious unrest in recent years occurred in February 1997 in the town of Yining, close to the Kazakh border. A demonstration of Uighurs carrying banners demanding that the Chinese authorities observe the rights of Muslims grew into open rebellion. The uprising was brutally quashed by the Chinese army. At least 25 people were killed and 200 injured.

Beijing regards Uighur separatism as a serious threat to the security of the state. «Today in private conversation it is possible to criticize the Communists, but to express support for Uighur independence is not possible, even within one´s own family, under the threat of arrest, Keston was told.

An unofficial instruction threatens Muslims working at state enterprises with dismissal if they go to a mosque. Keston saw notices at mosques stating that persons under the age of 18 are forbidden to attend.

In Kashgar, Keston was told that during the school winter holidays, teachers forced pupils to come to school on Fridays to prevent them from praying at home. Religious education outside the mosque is strictly forbidden. And authorities periodically conduct searches of Muslim homes in order to confiscate banned religious literature.

It appears that restrictions do not apply to all faiths. Parishioners at the Orthodox church in Urumqi (mostly Russians whose parents fled from the Soviet Union in the 1930s) say that Chinese citizens may go to church as long as they are not members of the Communist Party.

From 1983 to 1996, however, state employees and young people were not banned from attending a mosque. Keston was told that at that time Muslims experienced virtually no oppression by the authorities.

Evidently in 1996 the Chinese authorities concluded that Uighur separatism had a marked religious dimension. Indeed, some Uighurs say their people could never live in peace with the Chinese because most of them are atheists.

A Uighur would never go to a restaurant owned by a Chinese as the food would not be prepared according to Muslim rules. Many Uighurs do not travel to other parts of China because it is difficult to find food meeting Muslim requirements.

There is great indignation at the Chinese law limiting the birthrate — although the Uighurs as a national minority are allowed one more child than the Chinese.

«According to our Muslim customs the more children there are in a household the more happiness there is,» Uighurs told Keston. «The Chinese law insults our faith.»

While trying to reduce the Uighurs´ religiosity, Beijing respects their national culture. Teaching in schools and universities is conducted in the Uighur language and there are Uighur television and radio programs and newspapers. In the Chinese army there are special kitchens for the Muslim soldiers.

At the same time, Beijing is trying to combat Uighur separatism by investing in this backward province. The changes are impressive. While in 1994 Keston found that the basic form of transport in the towns of the XUAR was horse-drawn carts and bicycles, today cars have become the norm.

However, Beijing´s attempts to pacify the Uighurs are not yet having the effect the government desires.

«I can´t take money with me to the grave, for me it is much more important that foreigners in my own country should not prevent me from praying to God and living according to the laws of our ancestors,» is how many local Muslims expressed themselves to Keston.

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