Official Repression of Religion Continues in Xinjiang

July 12, 2011

Official repression of religion in Xinjiang remains severe. Authorities continue to claim that "illegal religious activities" and "religious extremism" constitute threats to the region's security. Officials have singled out Islamic practices in a number of cases and have maintained a range of curbs over Muslims' religious activities. Recent reports describe continuing campaigns against head scarves, measures to monitor Friday sermons at mosques, and reported imprisonment of a religious leader who refused to abide by government demands regarding a local mosque.

Authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) continue to target "illegal religious activities" and "religious extremism" as threats to the region's stability, maintaining curbs over religious activities undertaken outside of government-approved parameters and singling out Islamic practices in a number of cases. At a December 2010 XUAR Communist Party Committee Standing Committee meeting, attendees called for "resolutely preventing illegal religious activities and striking against religious extremist forces in accordance with law" as part of the region's work to maintain stability, according to a Xinjiang Daily report (via Xinhua, December 8, 2010). Following the meeting, the Party issued opinions on demarcating and preventing "illegal" religious activities in early 2011, which multiple localities reported implementing, according to descriptions of the opinions. (Full text not available. See references in, e.g., an April 24, 2011, report from Buddhism Online and an April 6 report on the Aksu District Government Web site.) Recent reports from XUAR media and government sources detail a range of ongoing efforts to curb religious practices, including broad campaigns against "illegal" religious activities, continuing campaigns against head scarves, measures to monitor Friday sermons at mosques, and reported imprisonment of a religious leader who refused to abide by government demands regarding a local mosque.

Campaign Against "Illegal Religious Activities" in Aksu Township

A township in Xinhe (Toqsu) county, Aksu district, detailed plans for a campaign against "illegal" religious activities stretching from November 2010 to March 2011, according to a report about the campaign posted November 27, 2010, on the Xinhe County Government Web site. The plan said the campaign was aimed at such issues as "using 'propagation of religion' to attack the Party and government," the "dual character" of a "small number of religious personnel" (an apparent reference to state-sanctioned religious leaders who do not abide by government-set parameters for religious practice), and the "problem" and phenomenon of having a "pronounced religious atmosphere" and wearing such things as "bizarre" clothes, veils, and beards. Stages of the campaign included: (1) "education activities" for religious leaders and believers, including "criticism" and "self-criticism"; (2) investigation activities to "ferret out," "fathom," and register students in underground religious classes as well as previously sanctioned religious personnel, and religious believers who have religious knowledge but are "unstable" in their ideology; (3) encouraging the reporting of "illegal" religious activities; and (4) "rectifying" problem areas, including by "severely punishing" people in underground religious classes or who are linked to the classes, in accordance with penalties in local village codes of conduct; using "education" and "transformation" activities for groups such as veiled women, men with large beards, and people with religious knowledge but who are "unstable" in their ideology; and inspecting cultural markets for "illegal" religious publications.

Campaigns Against Veiling and Beards

In addition to the township in Aksu that included veiled women and men with beards in its campaign against "illegal" religious activities, other localities in the XUAR also have carried out campaigns targeting Muslim men with beards and women who wear veils or clothing deemed to carry religious connotations. Under the direction of the Party-controlled XUAR Women's Federation, multiple localities reported continuing a campaign aimed at dissuading women from veiling their hair and faces. As noted in a previous CECC analysis, the federation reported in January 2010 that it had launched the campaign to enable ethnic minority women to "discern what is traditional ethnic dress" and to address why women should "take the initiative to not wear a veil." The Women's Federation in Hoten district reported in January 2011 that it would continue the campaign, "completing education and guidance work" to encourage women to remove their veils while "leading them to uphold a scientific, civilized, and healthy way of life and encouraging them to vigorously participate in productive labor for society," according to a January 27, 2011, report (cached) on the Hoten District People's Government Web site. In Luntai (Bugur) county, Bayangol Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, the local women's federation described continuing the campaign in order to "let even more ethnic minority women realize their own value in participating in society," according to a September 7, 2010, report on the Luntai County Government Web site. As reported by the Commission in previous analyses (1, 2), in recent years authorities also have described steps to monitor Muslim men with beards or restrict them from having beards, tying the practice to "religious extremism" and "backwardness." Authorities have detailed steps such as having government departments carry out "beard-shavings" directed at young men and using punitive measures including "severe punishment in accordance with law" (yifa yancheng) to deal with men with large beards, as well as women with veils. More recently, management rules in force for the "information corps" in a residential district in Usu city, Tacheng (Tarbaghatay) district, included the presence of "people from outside [the district] wearing abnormal large beards or veiling their faces," along with "residents holding extremist religious thoughts" as scenarios requiring immediate reporting, according to a September 18, 2010, report on the Hongqiao Residential District Office Web site. In Kucha county, Aqsu district, authorities identified people with beards or who wear "bizarre" clothes as "key people" for focusing education work to "transform" their ideology, according to a December 6, 2010, speech from the county's education bureau Party Committee Secretary.

Monitoring Sermons

In January 2011, a township in the Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, described implementing a system for government religious affairs employees to set the schedule for Friday sermons at the township's mosques and for using "religious information gatherers" of "high political consciousness" to provide information on the sermon delivery and the "ideological trends" of mosque attendees, according to a January 7, 2011, report on the Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County Government Web site. In recent years, authorities elsewhere in the XUAR also have reported on systems of monitoring mosques and sermons.

Continued Oversight of Women Religious Specialists

Authorities also have continued to increase oversight of Muslim women religious specialists known as büwi. (For more information, see previous CECC analyses 1, 2.) In February 2011, the women's federation in Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture issued directions to "increase the degree of attention" to büwi. The following month the federation called for successfully "educating and guiding" büwi and making progress in a system of fixed contact between Party members and the women, according to articles posted March 15 and March 30 on the prefecture's women's federation Web site. The township in Xinhe county, Aksu, discussed above, also included büwi among groups to receive "education" and "transformation."

Prison Sentences and Detentions in Shihezi

Authorities in Shihezi municipality detained father and son Muslim religious leaders Qahar Mensur and Muhemmed Tursun on October 1, 2010, on suspicion of "distributing illegal religious works," according to an April 11, 2011, Radio Free Asia report. On April 12, 2011, the Shihezi Intermediate People's Court reportedly sentenced them to 3 years' imprisonment in connection with storing and distributing "illegal religious publications." The publication in question reportedly was an annotated edition of the Quran by 14th-century scholar Ibn Kesir that had official government approval. Sources cited in the RFA article said that authorities were punishing the father and son because Qahar Mensur had refused to comply with government demands, such as bringing government documents into mosques, while he served as muezzin for a mosque.

For more information on religion and conditions in the XUAR, see Section II―Freedom of Religion and Section IV―Xinjiang in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.