Oct 04, 2006

East Turkestan: China Keeps Limits on Celebration of Muslim Holiday

Underlining the control of the Chinese Communist Party over religious activity, Amnesty International said the government launched a “political re-education campaign” for imams.

Beijing - A bare-chested Chinese man glanced through a restaurant window at three women in headscarves as he ambled, under the midday sun, through an alley near Beijing’s 500-year-old Dongsi Mosque.

Although now into the second week of Ramadan, the Uighur women enjoyed a lunch of lamb kebabs and pilau rice inside the Crescent Moon Xinjiang Restaurant, as they chatted in their throaty Central Asian language with two male companions.

Several more groups of Uighur men and women ate lunch while three young Chinese men gorged themselves on lamb and beer.

Despite the traditional Muslim requirement to fast between sunrise and sunset during the holy month, daytime business continued as normal at the Crescent Moon, as at other Uighur restaurants in the Chinese capital.

The Crescent Moon sells wine and liquor produced 3,000 kilometres away in the Uighurs’ home in Xinjiang, a vast Chinese-named region that borders Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The walls are decorated with photographs of Xinjiang overlaid with white Arabic script. In one picture, a suspiciously bright red flag hangs above a crowd outside an ancient mosque, seemingly emphasizing the control of the Chinese Communist Party over religious activity.

The restaurant will open for lunch throughout Ramadan, the Uighur owner, Anniwan, said with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders.

After 20 years in Beijing, Anniwan says he still misses Xinjiang, where many Uighurs do observe Ramadan and other traditional festivals. “I do miss it, but my mother is here,” he says.

The liberal atmosphere of what Anniwan calls a “Uighur new-style restaurant” suits the party, which tries to assimilate ethnic and religious minorities into mainstream Chinese culture.

China officially has 21 million Muslims, about half of them from the Hui group which predominates in poor northwestern areas but is spread across the country. Some 7.5 million Uighurs form the largest minority in Xinjiang.

After all religion was forcibly suppressed during the communist fundamentalism of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, the state protected “normal religious activities” in its 1982 constitution.

The government also gives concessions to ethnic minorities under its “one-child” family planning policy and has recruited more officials from minorities.

But controls remain over religious activity and all mosques must register with the government supervisory body, the Islamic Association of China.

The party closely monitors activities at mosques in Xinjiang, where it wages a public battle against what it terms the “three evil forces” of religious extremism, separatism and terrorism.

In parts of Xinjiang the hostility of Uighurs towards Chinese people is palpable. Many Uighurs complain of cultural and religious repression and claim ethnically Chinese migrants enjoy the main benefits of development in the oil-rich but economically backward region.

Some Uighurs favour independence from China and have staged small-scale terrorist attacks in the past. The government said terrorists were responsible for 200 incidents that killed 162 people in Xinjiang from 1990-2001, but almost no terrorism-related incidents have been reported there in recent years.

Feng Jinyuan, an ethnic Hui researcher on religion at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, claims that some pro-independence Uighurs are “controlled by foreign organizations, especially some US groups”.

But Feng admits that some “exaggerated reports” of conflict in Xinjiang may follow officials’ “mistakes when handling the issues of nationality”.

“I think that there are indeed some people who are not satisfied with our government, and they might encourage young Muslims to oppose the Chinese government,” Feng told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

“Society is complicated and has a large number of people, so it is not strange that there are some dissidents,” he said.

“The main trend is that Xinjiang residents are becoming more and more prosperous. Under the leadership of the Communist party, they live a much better life than before.”

Amnesty International and other rights groups said the government launched a “political re-education campaign” for imams in charge of mosques in Xinjiang following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

New restrictions were also placed on religious practise at schools and other institutions during Ramadan.

“The authorities force Muslim schoolchildren to have lunch,” the US-based Uighur Human Rights Project said in a recent report. “State employees are under similar pressure,” it said.

A religious affairs official in Khotan, a poor Uighur-majority area of southern Xinjiang, confirmed that a new regional regulation covering celebration of Ramadan had been in force for “five or six years”.

“The cadres work for the state, and students and teachers also cannot take part in it (fasting),” said the official, who declined to give his name.

“There is time limit for the religious activities in the mosques,” the Khotan official said by telephone. “All the activities should be finished before 11:30 a.m. and nobody can stay in the mosques at night.

“All the restaurants should open as usual, to provide a service to the people who do not believe in Islam or to the tourists from outside (Xinjiang),” he said.