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Posted on May 22, 2013

Sacred Right Defiled: A Former Imam Discusses Uyghur Religious Freedom

Henryk Szadziewski
Senior Researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project

Late in 2012, in an undisclosed location and over cups of sweet tea, I sat down with a former Imam to talk about Uyghur religious freedom in China. The man, a Uyghur, had served as a religious leader for five years in a small village to the north of the Uyghur region before he fled China in 2010. With a faint light seeping through the drawn curtains to the room in which we were sitting and an unusually pervasive silence in the streets outside the window, the calm backdrop to our conversation contrasted sharply with the experiences he related to me.

I underwent training at a local Islamic institute from October 1998 to October 2001 with 30 other students. There were three conditions for entry into the institute: the candidate was a graduate from high school, did not have a record of anti-government views and had a clean family history regarding political activity. Half of the trainees’ day was spent in political study. We studied the compatibility of Islam with socialist principles and the necessity for religious preaching to be acceptable to the Chinese government.

We were keen to learn about Islam, so we paid lip service to the political study instructors. However, if the trainees did not cooperate with the government in political instruction, we were dismissed from the institute. Trainees did learn how to recite the Koran and to speak some Arabic, but the meaning of the Koranic verses we recited were not taught. Koranic education lasted just one year of the three spent in training and the Chinese government published all the books provided to us.

I became an Imam in 2003. In my sermons, I had to explain national law, local law, party rules and religious law to the people who came to the mosque to worship. Sometimes they asked questions about what religious activities were permissible and I didn’t always know how to answer. When I did discuss religion in my sermons, it had to be kept short. If any of the people in the mosque asked detailed questions about religious doctrine, a party observer would stop the questioner.

I had to go to the village authorities every week to receive instructions on which religious regulations to announce in the mosque at Friday prayers. These included regulations on illegal religious activities, speech, study and gatherings. I was also told to tell the worshippers in the mosque that if anyone of them had witnessed any ‘unusual’ religious activities, these had to be reported to the police. This included those people who held ‘different ideas,’ even though this term was never fully explained to me.

I was not able to go to Mecca, even in my role as an imam, because I did not meet the state’s criteria. From my area only two to three people were allowed to go every year and those people had to be over 70 years of age. Some passed away before they were picked to go because of the long wait.

I did some underground teaching of the Islamic faith to children. I taught about eight to ten children individually in their homes. I had to do this because the local religious authorities told me I could not provide religious education to the children in my village. Officials also told me that no one under 18 could attend the mosque. They said it was my responsibility to remove anyone under 18 and if I failed to do so, I risked arrest. People from the local religious administration attended my mosque impersonating worshippers to check whether this regulation and others were being adhered to.

Some people in the community, such as farmers, could fast during Ramadan, but students, teachers and government workers were not allowed. They were given food during the day to eat, especially at lunchtime. Some people said they had already eaten, but were pressured into eating. If they persisted in saying they had eaten, their names were put on a list. The government also monitored if lights were switched on in houses before sunrise to see which families were observing Ramadan. If people who were forbidden to fast did so, their salaries were cut.

I stopped serving as an Imam in 2008 because I felt I was not serving my community in the way I hoped I could when I was younger. I was being used to promote the policies of a socialist government. I became a farmer instead, but officials pressured me to return to the mosque. I could not, so I left everything behind, including my family, and sought refuge overseas. My wife is constantly harassed by the Chinese police not only for my actions, but because she wears a headscarf in the village. The police come frequently to search our house and check the identity papers of my family. They are punishing them because I could not accept the conditions for the people of my village.

I had asked all my questions. I closed my notebook, set down my empty glass of tea and thanked him. I stepped outside the building and looked for a cab. I could hear the call to prayer and saw worshippers hurrying to the mosque. Once nestled into the backseat of a taxi, the driver asked me if I was a Muslim. I told him I wasn’t. “You should think about it.” I said I would.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project’s (UHRP) new report on Uyghur religious freedom, Sacred Right Defiled was released on April 30, 2013. In the report, UHRP documents restrictions on a number of aspects of Uyghur religious belief and practice described in this article. Such as:

  • Control of religious leaders. 
  • Banning of non state-approved versions of religious texts.
  • Prohibition of any outward expression of faith in government workplaces, hospitals and some private businesses.
  • Barring of state employees and anyone under the age of 18 from entering a mosque. 
  • Forbidding organized private and communal religious education.
  • Curbs on fasting during Ramadan. 
  • Restrictions on undertaking Hajj. 

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