Afternoon Muslim prayers a test for China's Xinjiang

  • World
  • Friday, 10 Jul 2009

URUMQI, China (Reuters) - Hundreds of Uighur Muslims crowded into at least one mosque in riot-stricken Urumqi on Friday after authorities relented on a decision to close mosques for the main day of prayer to minimize ethnic tension.

Security forces have imposed control over Urumqi, but the afternoon prayers will be a test of the government's ability to contain Uighur anger after Han Chinese, China's predominant ethnic group, attacked Uighur neighbourhoods on Tuesday.

Those attacks were in revenge for the deaths of 156 people in Uighur rioting on Sunday, the region's worst ethnic violence in decades.

The decision to silence collective prayers could rankle, but thousands of troops and anti-riot police appeared ready to quell any fresh Uighur protests. Nearly all Uighurs are Muslim, but few adhere to the strictest interpretations of Islam.

Beijing cannot afford to lose its grip on the vast territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China's largest natural gas-producing region.

About 500 Uighurs surged outside the White Mosque, in a Uighur neighbourhood, trying to join about 1,000 packed inside for prayers. Worshippers who emerged said the normal prayers had been shortened.

"I'm glad they are letting us in today," said a middle-aged Uighur named Ahmedadji. "There would have been a lot of unhappiness if they hadn't."


Other mosques frequented by Hui, a Muslim group akin to Han Chinese, opened their doors on Friday after crowds of a few hundred worshippers began shouting.

Mosques in the overwhelmingly Uighur bazaar district of Urumqi earlier displayed notices that prayers had been suspended.

A cluster of Uighurs outside the big Dong Kuruk Bridge Mosque said they were angry and disappointed it hadn't opened.

"We feel we are being insulted. This is our mosque. But we are not allowed in, while they let in non-believers," said a young man, pointing out that Chinese security forces had been stationed inside and even in the minarets jutting out above an adjacent expressway.

"Under instructions from superiors, normal prayer will be suspended from today," said a notice at the gateway of the nearby Guyuan Mosque. It was dated Wednesday. "Anybody wishing to pray ... please do so at home."

China's ruling Communist Party may fear that big Uighur religious gatherings could become another catalyst for unrest after a week of ethnic strife.

Uighurs, a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia, make up almost half of Xinjiang's 20 million people.

President Hu Jintao, forced to abandon a G8 summit in Italy by the ethnic violence in Xinjiang, has said maintaining social stability in the energy-rich region is the "most urgent task".

Hu described the Sunday riots as a "serious violent crime elaborately planned and organised by 'three forces' at home and abroad".

"Three forces" is a term China uses to refer to religious extremists, separatists and terrorists it says menace Xinjiang.

There appears little likelihood that China will slow its drive to punish those found guilty of killing Urumqi residents in the Sunday mayhem, when cars and buses were burnt.

On Tuesday, thousands of Han Chinese, shouting for vengeance, attacked Uighur neighbourhoods, and many Uighur residents said people died. The government has not released any numbers.

Authorities have posted notices in Urumqi urging rioters to turn themselves in or face stern punishment.

Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tensions, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who now are the majority in most key cities, including Urumqi.

(Additional reporting by Tyra Dempster in Urumqi, Ben Blanchard in Shanghai and Benjamin Kang Lim and Lucy Hornby in Beijing)

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