Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region are turning mosques used by mostly-Muslim ethnic Uyghurs for religious and community purposes into centers disseminating political propaganda, according to local sources.
Since Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August last year, he has initiated several harsh policies targeting the religious freedom of Uyghurs, including banning fasting during the May 26-June 24 Islamic holy month of Ramadan this year.
A new policy controlling mosques in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture—an area heavily populated by Uyghurs—is Chen’s latest measure aimed at assimilating members of the ethnic minority, who complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule in the region.
Under the directive, which has been implemented since June, caretakers of mosques in the prefecture are required to fly the national flag of China atop the buildings, sources said.
They have also been ordered to remove inscriptions of Islam’s holiest verse, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” from mosque walls and replace them with large red banners that read “Love the [Communist] Party, Love the Country” in yellow writing.
On Monday mornings, instead of a muezzin calling Muslims to prayer at the prefecture’s mosques, flag-raising ceremonies are now held, followed by the singing of the Chinese national anthem and a patriotic song entitled, “Without the Communist Party, There is No New China.”
The mosque’s imam or a government official then explains the meaning of the ceremony and reminds religious followers that the flag is a symbol of the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China, and urges them to love the party and nation, defend the “unity of the motherland,” and protect social stability.
Furthermore, instruction is given on the duty of patriotic religious clergy to help followers embrace “Chinese-style socialism” by strengthening the unity of the country’s different ethnicities, fight violent terrorism, and make contributions to the long-term peace and stability of Xinjiang.
While religious services are allowed to otherwise proceed as they had in the past, though administered by state-sanctioned imams, Uyghur residents of Kashgar prefecture have increasingly stopped attending mosques, citing frustration with the overwhelmingly political overtones of the gatherings.
Officials from Kashgar’s Kargilik (Yecheng) county Religious Affairs Bureau and Propaganda Office refused to comment about the new policy when contacted by RFA’s Uyghur Service.
But an official with the Loq village government in Kargilik confirmed that his local mosque was now taking part in weekly patriotism sessions.
“We hold a flag-raising ceremony every Monday, and there is a flag flying on our mosque and ‘Love the Party, Love the Country’ banners as well,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“When we hold the flag-raising ceremony on Monday, we sing [patriotic] ‘red songs.’ We start singing after the flag is raised. We sing ‘Without the Communist Party, There is No New China.’”
A Uyghur shop owner at a market in the seat of Kargilik county confirmed that he had seen propaganda banners on mosques there exhorting worshippers to love the party and the country.
“Yes, I have seen that big banner—I saw it a month ago,” said the vendor, who also asked to remain unnamed.
Eid al-Fitr service
Official sources in Yapchan village, in Kashgar’s Yengisheher (Shule) county, told RFA that the theme of patriotism and Chinese propaganda had been pushed particularly hard during the June 25 prayer service for Eid al-Fitr—a holiday marking the end of Ramadan and one of the two most important days of religious observance in Islam, along with Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice.
As a result, they said, less than 10 percent of the local population attended the service, mirroring similarly low attendance in some of the largest mosques in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
According to a report by the official Xinjiang Television, “more than 400 believers gathered under the flag” in the square in front of Yanghan Mosque in Urumqi, where they “attentively watched the flag being raised as they sang along with the national anthem.”
Later, the grand imam of Yanghan Mosque, Sheripjan, delivered a lecture on “resolutely walking the Chinese-style path, reviving the Chinese-style spirit, and solidifying Chinese strength, while stressing how religious believers can be devoted citizens.”
Additionally, the report said, Chongkowruk Mosque in the capital drew “more than 200 religious believers” to its Eid prayer service.
Yanghan Mosque normally draws several thousand attendees for prayer services, while Chongkowruk Mosque can hold more than 1,000 people.
A police officer from Yapchan told RFA that “only 141 [of 1,500] villagers came to the prayer service” for Eid al-Fitr at his local mosque, and that nobody under the age of 18, or from the families of party members, village cadres, civil servants, or other government employees attended.
“We kept a close watch on people on the outside, with some of us monitoring on closed circuit television and some of us monitoring and protecting [on foot patrol],” he said, adding that 21 people in total had been assigned to observe the proceedings.
A Uyghur cadre from Yapchan said that even if he had wanted to attend the Eid al-Fitr prayer service at the village mosque, doing so would have been frowned upon because officials are instructed to honor the state before anything else.
“I’m a party member, so I wouldn’t ever think about going to the Eid prayer service,” he said.
“It’s the same with those who are not party members—as long as you get a salary from the government, you can’t believe in religion. Only farmers have the freedom to believe in religion.”
A Uyghur security official from Yapchan confirmed that Eid was off-limits for ranking government employees.
“It isn’t possible for us to attend the Eid prayer service because we’re government cadres,” he said.
“Anyway, government cadres cannot believe in religion. We can never attend prayer services and wouldn’t dream of going.”
Mosques vs. Party schools
Ilshat Hassan, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, told RFA that propaganda is now so pervasive in Xinjiang’s mosques that they “are barely distinguishable from China’s Communist Party schools.”
“Uyghur Muslims don't know whether they are going to a mosque for prayer or a propaganda center to praise the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
He dismissed China’s bid to put Karl Marx, the founder of an atheist political system he called responsible for the death of “millions of people around the world,” above a God worshipped by more than one billion people.
“Clearly, it's not the pious Uyghur Muslims who are extremists, as described by the Chinese authorities,” he said.
“It's the Chinese government that's driving an extremist agenda in [Xinjiang], turning the House of the Almighty into the House of Marx. The Muslim world should not let China do this to the Uyghur people with impunity.”
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
China regularly vows to crack down on what it calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang.
But experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur separatists, and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.