Ramadan in China: Faithful dwindle under limits on religion
Tursunjan Mamat, a practicing Muslim in western China's Xinjiang region, said he's fasting for Ramadan but his daughters, ages 8 and 10, are not. Religious activity including fasting is not permitted for minors, he explained.
The 32-year-old ethnic Uighur wasn't complaining, at least not to a group of foreign journalists brought to his home outside the city of Aksu by government officials, who listened in on his responses. It seemed he was giving a matter-of-fact description of how religion is practiced under rules set by China's Communist Party.
"My children know who our holy creator is, but I don't give them detailed religious knowledge,'' he said, speaking through a translator. "After they reach 18, they can receive religious education according to their own will.''
Under the weight of official policies, the future of Islam appears precarious in Xinjiang, a rugged realm of craggy snow-capped mountains and barren deserts bordering Central Asia. Outside observers say scores of mosques have been demolished, a charge Beijing denies, and locals say the number of worshippers is sinking.
A decade ago, 4,000 to 5,000 people attended Friday prayers at the Id Kah Mosque in the historic Silk Road city of Kashgar. Now only 800 to 900 do, said the mosque's imam, Mamat Juma. He attributed the drop to a natural shift in values, not government policy, saying the younger generation wants to spend more time working than praying.
The Chinese government organised a five-day visit to Xinjiang in April for about a dozen foreign correspondents, part of an intense propaganda campaign to counter allegations of abuse. Officials repeatedly urged journalists to recount what they saw, not what China calls the lies of critical Western politicians and media.
Beijing says it protects freedom of religion, and citizens can practice their faith so long as they adhere to laws and regulations.
In practice, any religious activity must be done in line with restrictions evident at almost every stop in Xinjiang – from a primary school where the headmaster said fasting wasn't observed because of the "separation of religion and education", to a cotton yarn factory where workers are banned from praying on site, even in their dormitory rooms.
"Within the factory grounds, it's prohibited. But they can go home, or they can go to the mosque to pray,'' said Li Qiang, the general manager of Aksu Huafu Textiles Co. "Dormitories are for the workers to rest. We want them to rest well so that they can maintain their health.''
By law, Chinese are allowed to follow Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Roman Catholicism or non-denominational Protestantism. In practice, there are limits. Workers are free to fast, the factory manager said, but they are required to take care of their bodies. If children fast, it's not good for their growth, said the Id Kah mosque's imam.
Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank, said in a report last year that mosques have been torn down or damaged in what they called the deliberate erasure of Uighur and Islamic culture. They identified 170 destroyed mosques through satellite imagery, about 30% of a sample they examined.
The Chinese government rejects ASPI research, which also has included reports on Beijing's efforts to influence politics in Australia and other Western democracies, as lies promoted by "anti-China forces".
The government denies destroying mosques and allegations of mass incarcerations and forced labour that have strained China's relations with Western governments. They say they have spent heavily on upgrading mosques, outfitting them with fans, flush toilets, computers and air conditioners.
Xinjiang's biggest ethnic minority is Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim group who are 10 million of the region's population of 25 million people. They have borne the brunt of a government crackdown that followed a series of riots, bombings, and knifings, although ethnic Kazakhs and others have been swept up as well.
The authorities obstruct independent reporting in the region, though such measures have recently eased somewhat. Agency journalists visiting Xinjiang on their own in recent years have been followed by undercover officers, stopped, interrogated and forced to delete photos or videos.
Id Kah Mosque, its pastel yellow facade overlooking a public square, is far from destroyed. Its imam toes the official line, and he spoke thankfully of the government largesse that has renovated the more than 500-year-old institution.
"There is no such thing as mosque demolition," Juma said, other than some rundown mosques taken down for safety renovations. Kashgar has been largely spared mosque destruction, the Australian institute report said.
Juma added he was unaware of mosques being converted to other uses, although agency journalists saw one turned into a cafe and others padlocked shut during visits in 2018.
The tree-lined paths of the Id Kah Mosque's grounds are tranquil, and it's easy to miss the three surveillance cameras keeping watch over whoever comes in. The imam's father and previous leader of the mosque was killed by extremists in 2014 for his pro-government stance.
China's Uighur heartland turns into security state
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority. By Nadine Berghausen
Economy or security? China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas
China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security: three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants
One Belt, One Road Initiative: an ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond
China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit: a man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic set piece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence
Ethnic minority in China: a woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East
Communist Party vows to continue war on terror: Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation
CCTV cameras are being installed: many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar
Ban on many typically Muslim customs: the most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police
Security personnel keep watch: authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalised", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses
About 50 people prayed before nightfall on a recent Monday evening, mostly elderly men. A Uighur imam who fled China in 2012 called such scenes a staged show for visitors.
"They have a routine of making such a scene every time they need it," said Ali Akbar Dumallah in a video interview from Turkey. "People know exactly what to do, how to lie, it's not something new for them.''
Staged or not, it appears Islam is on the decline. The ban on religious education for minors means that the young aren't gaining the knowledge they should, Dumallah said.
"The next generation will accept the Chinese mindset,'' he said. "They'll still be called Uighurs, but their mindset and values will be gone.''
Officials say those who want to study Islam can do so after the age of 18 at a state-sponsored Islamic studies institute. At a newly-built campus on the outskirts of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, hundreds train to become imams according to a government-authored curriculum, studying a textbook with sections like "Patriotism is a part of faith'' and "be a Muslim who loves the motherland, abide by the national constitution, laws and regulations.''
"Continue the Sinicisation of Islam in our country," the foreword reads. "Guide Islam to adapt to a socialist society."
Though Islam lives on, the Sinicisation campaign has palpably reduced the role of religion in daily life.
Near Urumqi's grand bazaar, several dozen elderly men trickled out of a mosque during an unannounced visit by an agency journalist. Prayers continue as usual, the imam said, though attendance has fallen considerably. A jumbo screen showing state media coverage of top Chinese leaders hung above the entrance.
Down the street, the exterior at the Great White Mosque had been shorn of the Muslim profession of faith. On a Wednesday evening at prayer time, the halls were nearly empty, and worshippers had to go through x-rays, metal detectors and face-scanning cameras to enter.
Freedom of religion in China is defined as the freedom to believe – or not believe. It was a mantra repeated by many who spoke to the foreign journalists: It's not just that people have the right to fast or pray, they also have the right not to fast or pray.
"I really worry that the number of believers will decrease, but that shouldn't be a reason to force them to pray here,'' Juma said. His mosque, which flies a Chinese national flag above its entrance, has been refurbished, but fewer and fewer people come. (AP)