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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

U.S. Congress To Explore Islam In China

Worshippers at Id Kah Mosque Kashgar Xinjiang"The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) announces an Issues Roundtable entitled: 'Practicing Islam in Today's China: Differing Realities for the Uighurs and the Hui'

"According to government statistics, China has over 20 million Muslims, over 40,000 Islamic places of worship, and over 45,000 imams. Islam is an officially sanctioned religion, and Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution nominally ensures freedom of religious belief and 'normal religious activity' for Muslims in China. Reports regularly surface, however, of government-imposed restrictions on Muslim religious activities. According to these reports, Chinese officials censor the sermons delivered by imams, limit the ability of Muslim communities to build mosques, and discourage Muslims from wearing religious attire. Chinese government policy also prohibits teaching Islam to those under 18 years old.

The Uighurs and the Hui, China's dominant Muslim groups, have distinct ethnic, cultural, and historical backgrounds, and Chinese authorities treat the two groups differently. The Uighurs, who are of Turkic descent, face harsh religious restrictions and repression, since Chinese authorities associate the group with separatism and terrorism in western China. The Hui, who are related ethnically to the Han Chinese majority, enjoy greater freedom to practice Islam than Uighur Muslims."

So reads the intro to the terms of reference for a Congressional Roundtable on the practice of Islam in China.

Xinjiang home to the majority of Uygur Muslims has reportedly some 23,000 mosques, servicing not only the Uygur but the Hui, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and the other Muslim minorities, and is the predominate Muslim area in China.

As the terms of reference for the Congressional Roundtable allude there is much discrimination as to how the Uygur Muslims are treated compared to that of the other ethnic Muslim groups such as the Hui Muslims.

One example, and one that grates hard on the Uygur, is the general law in China forbidding those under 18 from participating in religious observance in public places of worship. The official reason given for this rule is that the youth of China should be concentrating on their secular education at that age not their religious. As freedom of religion goes this rule alone does not place China high on the scale of religious freedom, however, if it were universally enforced, one could at least accept it. This is not the case howver.

This rule is strictly enforced with the Uygur, signs on doors are everywhere in Uygur mosques in Xinjiang. The Hui, however, do not seem to have this rule enforced at all by officials from the religious departments.

In conversation with Hui Muslims in China I am told that boys under 18 regularly attend services and that even Communist Youth members openly participate. When I ask why this rule is different for the Uygur, those Hui Muslims I have spoken to in effect shrug their shoulders and say that "the Uygur are different" without any elaboration.

People often talk about a Muslim brotherhood but this is far from the case in Xinjiang. There is open dislike between differing ethnic groups even if when they share the same Islamic religion. An Uygur , for example, would not go to a Hui mosque and vice versa.

The Uygur are also discriminated against in the religious books they can buy and read. Islamic religious books in the Kazakh language or Chinese for example which are openly sold are banned from sale if they are in the Uygur language.

Uygur Muslims clerics are also more rigorously controlled and regulated than their Hui counterparts.

The apparent reason for this obvious example of discrimination is that the Han Chinese believe that Uygur mosques have been traditional hotbeds of "separatist" ideology and activity and therefore represent a threat to the state. The Chinese constitution does guarantee freedom of religion but it also specifically has a rider that negates this guarantee if religious activity is considered detrimental to the welfare of the State which obviously in the case of the Uygur they think that it does.

The Uygur on the other hand believe that these regulations and discrimination are methods utilised by the Han to erode the culture of the Uygur and speed up the process of assimilation. They claim that by rigorously enforcing the Under 18 rule, for example, that the state is attempting to break the nexus between youth, religion and Uygur culture and therefore make Uygur youth more amenable to Han influence and control.

Another area of discrimination which is quite blatant is freedom of travel to Mecca. China often cites as proof of her largess the number of Muslims that are allowed to visit Mecca each year. As most will know the Islamic religion requires each Muslim to make one pilgimage to Mecca in their lifetime if at all possible. A visit to Mecca therefore is of great importance and significance to Muslim followers. What the Chinese Government fails to say in the recitation of the numbers of Chinese Muslims allowed to visit Mecca is the percentage which is Uygur. The fact is that it is very small indeed when compared to the relative size of the Uygur Muslim population vis a vis the other Muslim ethnic minorities.

The Uygur are relatively secular when it comes to religion. Being Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School they are recognised as practicing the most moderate form of Islam in the Muslim world. Uygur woman do not generally practice Hijab prefering more western style attire and the use of alcohol whilst frowned upon is not totally denied them. Having said that however religion is as important to them as it would be for a western Christian and they deserve the right to practice it as they deem fit or, at the very least, with the same degrees of freedom afforded other Muslims in China.

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