CHINA: Xinjiang - Controls tighten on Muslims and Catholics
A Muslim in the Ili-Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in China's north-western Xinjiang region has complained of ever tighter restrictions on Muslims, even since the ban on the Sala Sufi order in August and closure of two local mosques. "Now that the Sufi believers have been dealt with, traditional Sunni Muslims are being persecuted," Abdu Raheman told Forum18. He says the authorities have arrested some Muslims in possession of "unauthorised" religious literature and have ordered some Muslim young men to shave off their beards. Forum 18 learnt that priests and those active in Catholic parishes have been put under surveillance, while – in the absence of native priests - Orthodox Christians complain they are still being denied a priest from abroad. One Protestant said an underground church would not even try to register as it feared repercussions on its members when registration is refused.
It remains unclear why the Sala Sufi order was banned in August and numerous practitioners arrested. At least two mosques of the Hui (Chinese Muslim) minority have been closed by the authorities over the past three months (see F18News 26 September 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=659).
Raheman – who owns the largest honey-producing company in Ghulja - reports that the security services have launched a campaign to hunt down religious literature in Muslim-owned shops and houses. "Several believers whom the authorities found in possession of unauthorised religious literature have been arrested," he told Forum 18. "There have also been cases where the authorities have ordered young Muslims to shave off their beards."
Raheman claims there are two reasons why he reckons Muslims in the more developed central regions of China have greater freedom than those in Xinjiang. "Firstly, the authorities are terrified of Uyghur separatism, whose underlying cause they believe is religion," he explained to Forum 18. "Secondly, the leadership of the autonomous region is very provincial and likes to carry on applying its original harsh measures."
As part of the crackdown on Catholic activity in the past six months, Forum 18 learnt that priests and those active in Catholic parishes have been put under surveillance. Forum 18's sources also stressed that the situation for Catholics in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region is worse then it is for fellow-Catholics in China's central regions.
Catholics are still strictly forbidden by the authorities from any contact with the Vatican. Earlier this year the authorities ordered the size of the stone cross above Ghulja's Catholic church to be reduced. Catholics who work in state organisations have been threatened that if they do not stop attending church, they will lose their jobs. The state ensures that no children or young people attend the four Catholic churches in the Ili-Kazakh Autonomous Region registered with the authorities. In 2004 there were even police points outside Catholic churches in Ghulja and the town of Nilka during Christmas services to ensure that no schoolchildren attended (see F18News 4 April 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=537).
At first glance, the state does not obstruct religious life in Ghulja. Several mosques cater to Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds, whether Uyghur, Dungan or Uzbek. Although Christians in the city number only a few hundred, Ghulja has a Protestant, a Catholic and an Orthodox church. Moreover, places of worship are often built at state expense.
Yet the state tries to maintain complete control over all religious organisations. National-religious committees, which form part of the administration of every town, control the lives of believers. Religious communities may only start operating once they have registered with the national-religious committee, and only people whose candidacy has been approved by the authorities can become religious leaders. The leaders of all religious communities have to attend meetings of the national-religious committees. Believers also have to display in their places of worship a poster published by the national-religious committee setting out the rules governing the activity of religious groups.
Some religious communities limit their activities to prevent conflicts with the state. Wang Yan Zhen, an assistant to the pastor of a local Protestant church, told Forum 18 on 23 September in Ghulja that the congregation has no problems with the authorities because it follows precisely the instructions from the national-religious committee. "Local Protestants have no contact with believers abroad, and their congregation is made up mostly of elderly people," a Catholic who preferred not to be named told Forum 18 in Ghulja. "So it is no surprise that, unlike us, they have no problems with the authorities."
Several underground Protestant groups also operate in Ghulja. One Protestant in the city said there are several reasons why they did not want to join the registered Protestant church. "Firstly, they belong to a traditional branch of Protestant belief, while we are Pentecostals," the Protestant – who preferred not to be named - explained to Forum 18. "Secondly, we think the church has compromised itself by having too much to do with the authorities. We would like to register our community, but we know that the authorities will never process our registration application. However, if we officially declare our presence without having been registered we will make all sorts of problems for ourselves. Our believers could be sacked from their jobs. So we prefer to operate underground."
Foreign missionaries in the town have intermittently faced problems. Forum 18 has learnt that around six years ago two foreigners – teachers at a local pedagogical institute who were distributing Christian literature - were deported from Ghulja.
The main problem facing Ghulja's Orthodox community is the lack of an Orthodox priest, Forum 18 found. Under Chinese law foreign priests may only work in the country on a permanent basis if they have permission from Beijing, and no local Orthodox priests are left in China. In December 2003 Fr Vianor Ivanov, the dean of the Zharkent district of the Astana and Almaty Orthodox diocese of neighbouring Kazakhstan, spent a week under house arrest in Ghulja and was then deported from the country because he had been working illegally with Chinese believers (see F18News 9 September 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=406).
"In May a delegation of officials came here from Beijing and we asked them again if Orthodox priests could come from Kazakhstan to hold services in Ghulja, even if only on feast days, but they replied that it was impossible under Chinese law," a local Orthodox believer, who preferred not to be named, told Forum 18. One Orthodox source told Forum 18 that four Chinese citizens have now completed training at Orthodox seminaries in Russia and are ready for ordination, but so far the Chinese authorities had not given them permission to work in China as priests. "Today there are Orthodox churches in Ghulja, Urumqi, Harbin and Erguni (inner Mongolia), but not one of them has a priest," the Orthodox Christian complained to Forum 18.
Ghulja, with its many different religious communities, is a typical provincial city in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region and it seems likely that the authorities' religious policy in this city is similar to that operating in other populated areas in the region.
For more background information see Forum 18's Xinjiang religious freedom survey at
A printer-friendly map of China (including Xinjiang) is available from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=china
26 September 2005
Forum 18 News Service has been unable to find out why the government of the Ili-Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture of China's north-western Xinjiang Region banned the Sala Sufi Muslim order as a "dangerous" group in August. "I'm not prepared to voice an opinion on whether or not this order is harmful," a professor from Beijing's Institute of Nationalities told Forum 18. But she denied that if any practitioners had been arrested it was for their religious beliefs. The German-based World Uyghur Congress says 179 people have been held. Local Muslim Abdu Raheman told Forum 18 that the practitioners were seized by the security services. "There was no court case against them, so no-one knows how long they will spend behind bars." He views the moves – which also include closures of mosques and seizures of religious literature - as part of a campaign against local Huis, ethnic Chinese Muslims. "The religious practices of the Huis bring out the international nature of Islam, and that aggravates the authorities."
1 September 2005
On 2 August 2005 public security officials in Hubei province raided a meeting of Protestant house church leaders, while on 1 August in Xinjiang region authorities arrested a Muslim instructor and 37 of her students. A week earlier, police raided a Mass held by a Vatican-loyal Catholic priest in Fujian region. A central problem in analysing the relationship between the central government and the local authorities in implementing state religious policies and regulations is how difficult it is to determine how far such religious freedom violations are a result of central government directives and how far they reflect the initiatives of provincial and sub-provincial officials. Forum 18 News Service notes that while the central government sets religious policy, local officials are responsible for implementing it and enjoy wide latitude. Anecdotal accounts suggest that local authorities have perpetrated religious freedom violations to serve the financial and political interests of local officials, who are often judged solely on how successful they are in achieving economic progress.
24 August 2005
The anachronistic official system of publishing, censorship and printing controls fails to meet Chinese Christian publishing needs, Forum 18 News Service has been told. One example of this, amongst others noted by Forum 18, is the severe restrictions on Bible publishing, which right is restricted to the state-controlled Catholic and Protestant religious associations. Despite the considerable achievement of the China Christian Council (CCC) in Bible publishing, continuing rapid church growth has resulted in an ongoing considerable shortage of Bibles and other Christian literature. This is exacerbated by CCC refusal to allow other Chinese publishers to publish Bibles, to the extent of threatening to sue rival publishers, and the astonishing ban on legal Christian bookshops outside the CCC legally selling the Bible. This situation causes both Christian and non-Christian Chinese people to use imaginative ways of bypassing the official system to distribute Christian literature, including Bibles.