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V. Implementation: Restrictions on Freedom of Religion in Practice

This section surveys three critical areas where the implementation of Xinjiang’s religious regulations and policies violate the basic political and religious rights of believers: the registration of religious organizations, the training or “reeducation” of religious personnel, and the ban on the construction of new mosques.

Registration of religious organizations: a no-win situation

The requirement that any type of religious organization be registered is one of the most effective means by which the authorities restrict most forms of religious activity.

By law, any association of believers has to register with the authorities, even if their activities are not strictly or exclusively religious, as in the case of traditional community gatherings or charitable groups. The registration and operation of religious organizations require approval by both the religious affairs bureaus and the civil affairs bureaus above the county level.96

Any religious body may apply to register. However, Xinjiang authorities routinely deny registration to independent religious bodies on the grounds that no religious activity is allowed without state control. This opens the door for individual believers to be persecuted on the grounds that they belong to or participate in an illegal religious organization.

Most Uighurs interviewed for this report said that they would not dare to try to register a non-profit organization because they were certain that their application would be rejected and that the attempt would put them under suspicion with the authorities. Asked whether they would try to register an organization, a small group of college students in Kashgar gave this response:

No way! This is impossible! The government would immediately accuse you of being a separatist, of encouraging illegal religious activities. This is too dangerous. You can bring a lot of problems on your head if you do that. They can expel you from school. The cadre in your native village will go and ask your parents why you are “making trouble” (naoshi 闹事), that sort of thing.97

Independent religious practitioners are thus in a no-win situation. If they ask to register they are denied registration but draw attention to themselves; if they congregate without having registered they can be charged with participating in or forming an “illegal organization.”

This is not merely a theoretical dilemma, judging by the high number of people detained in Xinjiang for political or religious offences. Many are detained in Xinjiang’s reeducation through labor camps for belonging to an “illegal organization.” An article co-signed by the vice-director of the Xinjiang Reeducation through Labor Bureau reveals that as of 2001 almost half of the detainees serving time for separatism and religion-linked offenses were detained on charges of“[belonging to] illegal organizations and [engaging in] illegal religious activities.”98

In August 1999, for example, a group of eighteen young adult Uighurs were sentenced by a Xinjiang court for alleged separatist activities. The charges included: “inciting [others] to split China, organizing meetings, taking oaths, accepting membership, and possessing illegal publications and counterrevolutionary videos for propaganda purposes,” according to the Chinese-language newspaper Wen Wei Po [文汇报], based in Hong Kong.99 There is no mention in the report of any evidence that the defendants had engaged in violent acts. Shirmehemet Abdurishit, the alleged leader of the group, was sentenced to a fifteen-year jail term, while the other seventeen defendants, whose names were never released, were sentenced to jail terms of up to fourteen years.100 The verdict was upheld by a higher court in December 2003.101

The “reeducation” of imams in 2001 and 2002

Religious work “should be regarded as an important, radical measure to oppose ethnic splittism and preserve social and political stability.102
–Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan, October 2002

In furtherance of the government’s objective of “keeping a handle on the ideological state of the imam at all times,”103 the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang conduct “religious training campaigns” and “political reeducation campaigns.” These are similar to the notorious “patriotic education campaign” waged in Tibet against Buddhist monks and nuns since 1996.104 The sessions, led and monitored by Party and government officials, are designed to compel religious personnel to openly express their opposition to “hostile forces”––in Tibet, the “Dalai lama clique,” and in Xinjiang, “separatist forces.”

The provincial, municipal, and district religious affairs bureaus regularly conduct training of clerics. The training of religious personnel (as well as the evaluation of the clerics) is carried out by the Third Bureau (Zongjiao sanchu 宗教三处) of the Xinjiang Ethnic Religious Affairs Committee [民族事务委员会 (宗教事务局)].105 The Third Bureau “plans the training of religious personnel,” “reinforces the management of religious institutes and scriptures classes,” and “is responsible for the political education of religious personnel.”106 The United Front Work Department107 and the China Islamic Association at the provincial and prefectural levels also contribute to the training sessions.108

Since 2001, the frequency of these trainings apparently has increased from once every few years to once a year for the 8,000 registered imams above the township level.109 The campaigns in 2001 and 2002 systematized the ideological control imposed on clerics.

The 2001 campaign was officially “the largest-scale religious training” since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, with 8,000 imams above the village level undergoing “political reeducation” between March 15 and December 23, 2001.110 The twenty-day “reeducation” sessions were aimed at “reestablishing correct ideological understanding and improving the political qualities of the religious leaders.”111 In March 2002, it was announced that Islamic scripture schools would train 8,000 “patriotic religious personalities,” “2,000 of them to be trained by the region and 6,000 by the localities.”112

“Reeducation” and training sessions are obligatory and involve clerics from different areas of Xinjiang, who are divided into ethnically homogeneous working groups (Uighurs, Huis, Kazakh, etc.).113 Clerics are forced to listen to speeches by Party and government officials and must answer questions, orally and in writing, concerning the regulations pertaining to religious activities, Party doctrine, and positions on separatism. Each participant must submit a “study report” at the end of the training.114

During “exchange of experience” sessions (huxiang jingyan huiyi 互相经验会议), clerics are asked to address the other participants with precise accounts of “difficulties” or “incidents” they have encountered in their work. For instance, an imam will describe how “illegal” religious classes were held, or how the mosque used some “illegal” religious book. They may also relate how they failed to warn the authorities about “elements” that were “agitating,” or about inviting a cleric from another area without prior authorization. Clerics also have to admit personal errors and how they have nurtured “incorrect” ideas. They also have to point out examples of such erroneous actions on the part of other members of the group.115 

These sessions are purposely designed as loyalty tests. If clerics do not offer precise accounts, they are viewed as being insincere about opposing separatism. But if they admit mistakes, they are considered guilty of violating regulations. This serves to put continuous pressure on the clerics. The imam’s “attitude” (taidu 态度––in this context a euphemism for political loyalty) is monitored by instructors during the training. Final evaluations are recorded in the imam’s personal file, which is kept by the religious affairs bureaus.

Clerics who do not fulfill the ideological criteria can be put through further “education session(s)” and have their accreditation suspended or removed. Local sources pointed out that these sessions were particularly taxing for old clerics from the countryside, who are forced to travel and are suddenly plunged into arcane testing of their ideological loyalty to the Party.116

The Xinjiang Daily, the official organ of the Xinjiang CCP Committee, portrays these sessions in a positive light, suggesting clerical appreciation for the “training”:

During the study, imam-students were very enthusiastic and listened attentively to lectures. Some of them were aged and weak but persevered in attending classes, actively took part in discussions, and wrote study reports.117

The same article reported that after the 2001 campaign clerics declared: “Now we have set our mind at rest and seen the light as if we had just walked out of a dense fog.”

According to secondary accounts given to Human Rights Watch,118 the climate of the training sessions is similar to accounts given by people forced to write self-criticisms during the Maoist era. Each session is a cat-and-mouse game, where the safest way to be left off the hook is to admit to relatively minor mistakes, if need be by inventing them. Such sessions are a core component of the political “reeducation” campaigns conducted for clerics since 2001.

The content of the courses, in which “political studies are combined with training in religious knowledge,” was “scientifically determined” by an ad hoc small group set up with leaders from the Regional Party Committee, the XUAR government, the State Administration of Religious Affairs, and the China Islamic Association:

The leading group deeply explored and scientifically determined the contents of courses by proceeding from the perspective of guiding religion in adapting to the socialist society and maintaining the lasting political stability of Xinjiang,” reported the Xinjiang Daily … Imam-students systematically studied General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s important speeches on religious issues, the Party’s ethnic and religious policies, relevant state laws and regulations, the history of Xinjiang, and the history of Xinjiang religions.119

The authorities also propagated selections of text from the Koran that were deemed suitable. “New Edition of Selections from the Koran” (Xinbian Kuerlan bian 新遍苦而滥编) was published by the Xinjiang Religious Affairs Bureau in August 2001. Religious bureaus of all districts, prefectures, and cities organized in a planned manner the work of testing, explaining, training, and diffusing the book, “obtaining great results,” according to official reports.120

In October 2002, a Party- and government-sponsored regional conference on religious work was called in Urumqi to sum up the work of 2002 and lay out the plan for 2003. The Xinjiang Party Secretary, Wang Lequan, gave clear instructions to ensure that religious public figures were “politically qualified” and ordered his subordinates to further “monitor” and “expunge” religious publications.

We must strengthen the management of religious public figures, and be sure that they are politically qualified. This is a demand of the first order. Political qualifications are the following: an ardent love for the motherland, support for Communist Party leaders and the socialist system, opposition to national splittism and illegal religious activities, the defense of national unity and the unification of the motherland, and a conscious compliance with the nation's laws and policies ... We must implement a reinforcement of the management of the places of religious activity and the content of the texts, actively explore methods to effectively monitor the content of the texts expounded by religious figures, and unify a standardized expounding and explanation of the texts.121

Control and conformity: supervision of mosques in 2001

Alongside efforts to step up ideological indoctrination of clerics, since 2001 the authorities have radically stepped up the monitoring and inspection of mosques. Among other things, inspections verify the accreditation of imams, ascertain that no “illegal” teaching is taking place, and ensure that government regulations are posted and available.

In line with instructions from the Central Party Committee in Beijing and the annual inspection regime prescribed in the Manual, the Xinjiang authorities initiated a campaign in 2001 to increase supervision of Uighur mosques. In August 2001, the Xinjiang Party Committee and the Xinjiang government convened a conference to discuss annual inspections of places of religious activities. This led to the design of a five-year-plan under an ad hoc “small leading group.” The group was set up the following November, and two teams, one for northern Xinjiang and one for southern Xinjiang, were charged with “coordinating and reinforcing the work of annual inspection of conformity.”122  

According to the Xinjiang Religious Affairs Bureau, Xinjiang’s 23,909 mosques were inspected in 2001. One hundred forty-one mosques were found to be “non-conforming” and targeted for “rectification.” No figures are available for the following years.

In addition to the annual inspection of mosques, the authorities in 2001 established a “three-level religious control network” (sanji zongjiao guanli wangge 三级宗教管理网格), combining village, township, and district levels. The system establishes permanent monitoring of Uighur mosques by “leading cadres of ethnic minorities” who “maintain contacts with mosques and dialogue with religious personalities” and who control the mosque’s inspection log in which details about the clerics in charge, dates, results and recommendations of inspections, and other relevant information is recorded. The following account of the work to “strengthen the management of religious affairs” in Aksu prefecture of Xinjiang gives a picture of how the system works:

The City Religious Affairs Bureau issued an evaluation handbook to each of the liaison personnel for recording their work truthfully. The handbooks are examined and archived periodically… Aksu prefecture appointed ten ethnic minority leading cadres at the deputy county level as liaison personnel as well as 657 leading minority cadres… to establish contacts with 416 mosques ... The liaison personnel visited mosques once a week to talk and befriend religious personalities, to propagate the party’s policies toward ethnic nationalities and religions, and to provide education and guidance on patriotism.123

The persecution of clerics and the demolition of mosques

Chinese authorities are careful not to appear to be targeting Islam specifically, and they keep closures of mosques and the non-reaccreditation of imams secret. It is difficult to assess the number and scale of such actions. However, information found in scattered official sources suggests that retaliation against non-conforming mosques and clerics is prevalent and has gained new vigor since late 2001. At that time, authorities in Xinjiang imposed even more control on mosques, effectively banning any new construction work on mosques in Xinjiang. Although Uighur exile organizations have long claimed that such a ban was implemented after the 1997 Yining uprising, the measure was never officially confirmed and is not found in material issued by the Religious Affairs Bureau. However, in October 2002 the Xinjiang Party Secretary appeared to confirm the existence of the ban in a speech relayed by the Xinjiang Daily:

At this time, the places for religious activities throughout the Autonomous Region are adequate to meet the needs of the normal religious activities of religious believers. In principle we should not have to build new places for religious activities.124

The Party Secretary also underscored limitations imposed on the preservation of existing mosques. He declared that, “any maintenance and repair of places for religious activities must reflect real needs and be concrete, safe and practical” and he stressed the ban on sharing costs of repairs with independent, non-governmental sources, such as private businessmen, without permission from the relevant authorities.125

The destruction of a mosque by the authorities was reported in Hetian prefecture in southern Xinjiang in October 2001. Local worshipers demonstrated against the action; the demonstration was immediately put down by security forces. According to media reports, an official of Hetian Nationalities and Religious Affairs Bureau declared that about five people had opposed the conversion of a mosque into a carpet factory and appealed to regional and Beijing authorities when the project began, but eventually agreed to the factory conversion, which took place “because the mosque was located beside a school and considered too loud and a bad influence.”126

The persecution of clerics did not start only after September 11, 2001. Official media sources reported in May 2001 that seven imams were arrested and two “underground mosques” destroyed in the provincial capital Urumqi. The charges against the men were not made public.127 According to official documents, Yusaiyin Wubulibei, former Imam of the Shayibake Mosque in Urumqi, was demoted and put under investigation by the Public Security Bureau in April 1999 for having “preached against the religious policies of the Party” and “exacerbated contradictions within the patriotic clergy.”128 No further information regarding the charges against him was available at the time of writing.

In Yili prefecture alone, local government sources state that seventy “illegal constructions or renovations of religious sites” were demolished and forty-four imams stripped of their “credentials” (zige 资格) between 1995 and 1999.129 The official Urumqi Yearbook of 1999 cites the closure of “twenty-one illegal religious sites” and the arrest of a group of reactionary religious students in the regional capital Urumqi in 1998.130 It recounts that the authorities “smashed up” numerous illegal preaching spots, confiscated two hundred volumes of reactionary books, and two hundred reactionary tapes and reactionary propaganda materials.131

The government has been careful to maintain a few showcase mosques that have undergone extensive renovation, such as the Id-Kah Mosque in Kashgar. Local residents complain that the ban on renovations and extensions is particularly stringent for Uighur mosques and more lax for mosques attended by Hui Muslims, who are ethnically distinct from Uighurs.

A Case of “Extremism”

China typically justifies the detention or defrocking of clerics as a response either to “illegal activities”—often activities integral to the free exercise of religion—or to “religious extremism,” a code term for terrorism. The general repression of religion in Xinjiang casts doubts on the legitimacy of many of these punishments, but very few independent and reliable accounts have surfaced.

The case presented here is particularly significant because it is found in a high-level document issued by the Study Group of the Xinjiang CCP Committee, the highest political authority in Xinjiang, as an example of what constitutes “extremism.” 132 It thus carries the full weight of the Party leadership and sets a political line that all Party members, including prosecutors, judges, and government cadres, should refer to in deciding on a case or carrying out decisions.

The report depicts the following incident as an example of what is termed “narrow-minded nationalist thinking” (xiazhai minzuzhuyi sixiang 狭窄民族主义思想):

“In the country, a few dangerous people with narrow-minded nationalist thinking are pushing national-ethnic self-respect and self-belief to extremism, inciting scorn and discrimination of other national-ethnic cultures…They one-sidedly debate a hot social issue, and fan feelings of dissatisfaction (buman qingxu 不满情绪) among the masses.”

In July and August 1999, the imam of the Sidituwei mosque in Hetian prefecture said in front of three or four thousand people during the Friday prayer:

“Because they are unemployed, Uighur women and youngsters have turned into prostitutes and vagrants. Pray Allah to save their souls, to give them jobs. Let the sound of our tears move Allah. A crowd of one thousand were thus led to cry loudly.”

This speech by the imam would normally be understood to be a piece of everyday social commentary, the expression of which would be covered by the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. The choice of this speech as an example thus sends an unambiguous signal to all Party and government cadres that raising “hot social issues” (shehui redian wenti 社会热点问题), and spurring “feelings of dissatisfaction” is equivalent to separatism.

[96] The precise registration procedure is detailed in National Bureau of Religious Affairs, “Measures regarding the registration of places of religious activities,” April 13, 1994 [国务院宗教事务局: 宗教活动场所登记办法, 1994年4月13日].The regulations specify that registration can be downgraded to a one or two year “temporary registration” if problems are found, or suspended for “rectification.”

[97] Human Rights Watch interviews in Kashgar, July 1999.

[98] Ren Jieling, Li Yulin, “A Cursory Discussion of the Characteristics of "Three Categories of Persons” Undergoing Rehabilitation Through Labor and How to Manage Them,” Crime and reform studies, 2001 [任杰灵, 李毓林“浅谈“三类劳教人员”表现特征及管理的对策,”犯罪与改造研究, 2001年第4期].

[99] Quoted in “Bingtuan Supreme Court Affirms Jail Terms for Uighur Youths,” Radio Free Asia, December 23, 2003.

[100] “Bingtuan Supreme Court Affirms Jail Terms for Uighur Youths,” Radio Free Asia, December 23, 2003.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Editorial, Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], October 13, 2002, FBIS, November 5, 2002 [CHI-2002-1029].

[103] "Unequivocally Oppose National Separatism, Illegal Religious Activities,” Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], August 16, 1998, in "Xinjiang Official on Opposing Separatism," FBIS, October 18, 1998 [CHI-98-291].

[104] See Tibetan Information Network and Human Rights Watch (joint report), Cutting Off the Serpent's Head: Tightening Control in Tibet (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).

[105] Website of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region People’s Government: (retrieved May 26, 2004).

[106] Ibid.

[107] The United Front Work Department is responsible for the elaboration of polices and plans regarding ethnic and religious affairs, as well as “coordinating the relevant departments to carry out the fight against the activities of domestic and overseas separatist enemy forces such as the Dalai clique.” (Source: Official Website of the United Front Department, (in Chinese)).

[108] The sessions lasted 10 days on average in 2001. Xinjiang Daily, December 21, 2001 [新疆日报,2001年1月21日].

[109] “Mosque Leaders’ Reeducation Campaign Stepped Up,” South China Morning Post, November 14, 2001; Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], December 21, 2001, FBIS, January 23, 2002 [CHI-2002-0117].

[110] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], December 21, 2001, FBIS, January 23, 2002 [CHI-2002-0117].

[111]“Mosque Leaders’ Reeducation Campaign Stepped Up,” South China Morning Post, November 14, 2001.

[112] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], March 12, 2002, FBIS, March 14, 2002 [CHI-2002-0329].

[113] “Mosque Leaders’ Reeducation Campaign Stepped Up,” South China Morning Post, November 14, 2001; Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], December 21, 2001, FBIS, January 23, 2002 [CHI-2002-0117].

[114] Ibid.

[115] Human Rights Watch interviews with relatives of two clerics, Kashgar, July 2000.

[116] Ibid.

[117] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], December 21, 2001, FBIS, January 23, 2002 [CHI-2002-0117].

[118] Human Rights Watch interviews with relatives of two clerics, Kashgar, July 2000.

[119] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], December 21, 2001, FBIS, January 23, 2002 [CHI-2002-0117].

[120] Xinjiang Annals 2002 (Urumqi: Xinjiang Yearbook Publishing House), 2003, p. 333. [新疆年鉴2002, 乌鲁木齐:新疆年鉴出版社,2003, 第333页].

[121] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], October 13, 2002, FBIS, November 5, 2002 [CHI-2002-1029].

[122] Xinjiang Annals 2002, p. 334.

[123] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], March 13, 2002, FBIS, March 14, 2002 [CHI-2002-0329].

[124] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], October 13, 2002, FBIS, November 5, 2002 [CHI-2002-1029].

[125] Ibid.

[126] The mosque was apparently turned into a carpet factory. “Mosque razed, 180 arrested,” South China Morning Post, October 14, 2001; “Arrests of mosque protesters denied,” South China Morning Post, October 16, 2001.

[127] Human Rights Watch, “China: Human Rights Concerns in Xinjiang,” October 2001, [online],

[128] Yining Municipality Annals, Urumqi: Xinjiang People’s Press, 2002 [伊宁市志, 乌鲁木齐:新疆人民出版社, 2002].

[129] Urumqi Yearbook 2000 (Urumqi: Xinjiang People’s Press), 2001, pp.250-251. [乌鲁木齐年鉴 2000, 乌鲁木齐:新疆人民出版社, 2001, 250-251页].

[130] Urumqi Yearbook 1999  (Urumqi: Xinjiang People’s Press), 2000 [乌鲁木齐年鉴1999, 乌鲁木齐:新疆人民出版社, 2001, 250-251页].

[131] Ibid.

[132] Study Group of the Xinjiang Party Committee, “Investigative report on correctly apprehending and resolving Xinjiang’s nationality problem under the new situation,” February 2001 [中共新疆维吾尔自治区委组织部课题组:关于正确认识和处理形势下新疆民族问题的调查报告, 2001年2月].

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