Nearly all Uyghur clergymen from a mosque in a city in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have been imprisoned, leaving no one in the community who is able to conduct religious ceremonies, said two sources familiar with the current situation in a corner of Xinjiang near Kazakhstan.
Chinese authorities have taken into custody all seven religious leaders from the Tahtiyun Mosque in the Chinese bazaar district of Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) in the Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, said a source from outside the area who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Among the seven detained in early 2018 were a khatib (a man who delivers a sermon) Kudrat Qarim (an honorific used for people who can recite the Koran), a muezzin (a man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque) Ahmatjan, and imam Saydahmat, the source said. They all were sentenced to prison not long afterwards, the person added.
The Tahtiyun Mosque had been under surveillance for nearly two years by an “excessively active” police officer, who even turned the lower floor of the building into a dedicated interrogation room, the source said.
In light of growing international pressure on China over severe rights abuses of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the XUAR, deemed by the United States as constituting genocide, authorities in Xinjiang reportedly have loosened restrictions on religious and cultural practices since the beginning of the year, including opening some mosques for public display.
However, because almost all religious leaders have been imprisoned in all places in the XUAR, this policy change has had no real effect on people’s ability to practice their religion, according to sources in the region.
Authorities also have taken away religious leaders from other mosques in Ghulja, home to more than 540,000 people, the sources said.
There are now no religious leaders capable of officiating at weddings or funerals, or of overseeing ceremonies in Ghulja, and substitutes who have stepped in to conduct the ceremonies are often not trained to do so, said the source.
The lengths of the prison terms of the religious leaders are unknown and impossible to find out because authorities made their family members swear not to divulge the details of their sentences, the source said.
An employee at the municipal office for religious affairs and United Front work in Ghulja declined to comment when asked about the purging of the city’s top Muslim clergymen.
“We are not allowed to talk about this on the phone,” he said.
Nearly all were sentenced
When contacted by RFA, the police officer who previously served as deputy chief at the provincial-level Public Security Bureau and later was assigned to oversee surveillance of the Tahtiyun Mosque, confirmed that the seven mosque leaders had been taken into custody in 2018.
Although the police officer admitted to involvement in the cases, upon learning that some sentence details had been revealed, he claimed to have no knowledge of the length of the jail terms.
The officer said he had worked in collaboration with the seven detained mosque leaders for some two years, but he could not provide details on their whereabouts.
The police office identified detained clergy Kudrat Qarim, Ahmatjan, Saydahmat by name and position, however.
He also said that three others — Abdushukur, Yasin Qarim, and Saydullam Ablimit — were among the religious leaders from the mosque who were detained and later sentenced.
“Nearly all of them were sentenced,” he said when asked by telephone about how many of them now were in internment camps or in prison.
The officer’s aggressive monitoring of the mosque led to the interrogation of many people were for baseless reasons during his 2016-17 tenure there. By 2018, everyone who had been interrogated was forcibly taken to internment camps, said the source with knowledge of Ghulja.
China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs in a network of detention camps since 2017, with smaller numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, fellow Turkic-speaking people, also incarcerated in the system. Beijing says the camps are vocational training or re-education centers aimed at combating extremism in the XUAR.
When RFA asked about the others the police officer interrogated who also were taken to the camps, he said he once questioned a man from southern Xinjiang who was visiting the Tahtiyun Mosque because of his actions while praying.
“When he finished his namaz [Islamic prayers] and said ‘Allah,’ when he touched his earlobes, he touched them with very strange motions, and he held his hands up high behind him,” the police officer said.
“He held his hands up high, as though he were dancing, both of his hands. Once he was done praying and left the mosque, I called out and went and got him,” the policeman said.
“They were just such strange movements,” the officer added.
When the officer asked the man to identify himself, where he was from, and what he intended to do, the man would not respond.
“I immediately called the police station and told them to look into his identity, that he was from the south,” the officer said. “He was from the southern city of Shayar (Shaya),” he said. “I called them about this, and they spoke with the Public Security Bureau in Shayar.”
The officer said he later handed over the man to police on charges of Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam that follows a literal interpretation of the Koran, though he doesn’t know what happened to him.
In 2019, authorities leased another mosque in Ghulja to a Han Chinese businessman from the capital Beijing, who turned the place of worship into a tourist hotel that serves as both a tourist site and wedding venue known as the "Fanjing," or scenic courtyard, according to an RFA investigative report in April.
The hotel has been operating since 2020 and is owned by a Beijing travel company known as Gu Ying.
The Chinese government has demolished other mosques in the XUAR as part of its campaign to erode Uyghur religion and culture.
Ghulja was the site of a massacre of some 200 Uyghurs who were executed during a crackdown, according to rights groups and Uyghur exile groups, following nonviolent protests in early February 1997, calling for an end to religious repression and ethnic discrimination in the city. Chinese authorities violently suppressed the protest and detained and sentenced hundreds of Uyghurs to lengthy prison terms.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.