The grand mosque that draws thousands of Muslims each week in this oasis town has all the usual trappings of piety: dusty wool carpets on which to kneel in prayer, a row of turbans and skullcaps for men without head wear, a wall niche facing the holy city of Mecca in the Arabian desert.
But large signs posted by the front door list edicts that are more Communist Party decrees than Koranic doctrines.
The imam’s sermon at Friday prayers must run no longer than a half-hour, the rules say. Prayer in public areas outside the mosque is forbidden. Residents of Khotan are not allowed to worship at mosques outside of town.
One rule on the wall says that government workers and nonreligious people may not be “forced” to attend services at the mosque – a generous wording of a law that prohibits government workers and Communist Party members from going at all.
“Of course this makes people angry,” said a teacher in the mosque courtyard, who would give only a partial name, Muhammad, for fear of government retribution. “Excitable people think the government is wrong in what it does. They say that government officials who are Muslims should also be allowed to pray.”
To be a practicing Muslim in the vast autonomous region of northwestern China called Xinjiang is to live under an intricate series of laws and regulations intended to control the spread and practice of Islam, the predominant religion among the Uighurs, a Turkic people uneasy with Chinese rule.
The edicts touch on every facet of a Muslim’s way of life. Official versions of the Koran are the only legal ones. Imams may not teach the Koran in private, and studying Arabic is allowed only at special government schools.
Two of Islam’s five pillars – the sacred fasting month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca called the hajj – are also carefully controlled. Students and government workers are compelled to eat during Ramadan, and the passports of Uighurs have been confiscated across Xinjiang to force them to join government-run hajj tours rather than travel illegally to Mecca on their own.
Government workers are not permitted to practice Islam, which means the slightest sign of devotion, a head scarf on a woman, for example, could lead to a firing.
The Chinese government, which is officially atheist, recognizes five religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Taoism and Buddhism – and tightly regulates their administration and practice.
Its oversight in Xinjiang, though, is especially vigilant because it worries about separatist activity in the region.
Some officials contend that insurgent groups in Xinjiang pose one of the biggest security threats to China, and the government says the “three forces” of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism threaten to destabilize the region. But outside scholars of Xinjiang and terrorism experts argue that heavy-handed tactics like the restrictions on Islam will only radicalize more Uighurs.
Many of the rules have been on the books for…
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