In Far-West China, a Sign of How Uyghur Muslims Are Treated

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A warning in a locked-up Chinese mosque against "illegal religious behavior"


I traveled to Xinjiang in the summer of 2010, the year after riots broke out between the region's indigenous Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority and Han Chinese, who have been growing in numbers there since China's "Going West" policy in 2000. 

On a stopover there during a bus tour of China's grape-growing capital in Turpan, Xinjiang, I pushed my way through two locked wooden doors to a small local mosque while my fellow tourists, mainly Hans from the Chinese heartland, purchased overpriced grapes and raisins from Uyghur locals.

This message board was hanging in the courtyard just outside the mosque's prayer hall. The sign to the far left reads, in Chinese and Uyghur script, "23 specific manifestations of illegal religious behavior." The middle sign reads "'Yizboot group' Counterrevolutionaries," and refers to a Uyghur group that opposes Beijing's authority in Xinjiang. The sign to the far right reads, "Building peace '5 Good' Standards for Mosque Behavior."

Signs like these, restricting the religious activities of Xinjiang's Muslim Uyghurs, have been the cause of much contention from locals and international human rights groups.

Wandering back up the road to wait for my tour group to finish its visit to a Turpan vineyard, I cooled my feet in a small well with a Uyghur vineyard worker. It was Ramadan, and he was hot and exhausted from a day toiling without food or drink.

I mentioned the sign. "What are these restrictions," I asked in Mandarin, not being able to read the bullet points in Uyghur.

"What restrictions," he said, laughing, "The only Chinese here are the tourists. There are no policemen to enforce these rules."

I had read earlier that young Uyghurs were forbidden from entering a mosque before turning 18 or observing the Ramadan fast. I asked my new Uyghur friend if those laws were enforced.

"No," he said. "We're not supposed to bring them to the mosque, but we do anyways. And we let them fast. No one needs to know."

Back in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital city, where violence has broken out between Uyghurs and Han in the two summers prior, a schoolteacher I met said that, by law, schools are required to administer a snack time during Ramadan. The idea, he said, is to ensure that children eat despite the fast, but he intimated that, in all-Uyghur classrooms, this law isn't observed either.

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Massoud Hayoun is a digital-news producer for Al Jazeera America.

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