Mosques closed in China's Urumqi with ethnic tensions high

July 11, 2009 - 0:0

URUMQI, China (AFP) -- The normally bustling mosques of China's Urumqi city were ordered shut on the main Muslim day of prayer Friday with police out in force to prevent new outbreaks of deadly ethnic unrest.

Uighur Muslims said they had been directed to pray at home, as armed forces saturated the streets of the northwest Xinjiang region's capital five days after clashes that authorities said left 156 people dead.
“The government said there would be no Friday prayers,” said a Uighur man named Tursun outside the Hantagri mosque, one of the oldest in the capital, as about 100 policemen carrying machine guns and batons stood guard nearby.
“There's nothing we can do ... the government is afraid that people will use religion to support the three forces.”
The “three forces” is a Chinese government term referring to extremism, separatism and terrorism, forces it says are trying to split the remote Xinjiang region from the rest of the country.
Xinjiang's eight million Uighurs have long complained about religious, political and economic repression under Chinese rule, and this deep-set anger spilled out on Sunday in protests that quickly turned violent.
The Chinese government said 156 people were killed and more than 1,000 others were injured, as Uighur Muslims attacked people from China's dominant Han ethnic group.
But Uighur exiles have said security forces over-reacted to peaceful protests. They said up to 800 people may have died in the unrest, including the security crackdown.
The unrest continued early in the week as thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets wielding knives, poles, meat cleavers and other makeshift weapons vowing vengeance against the Uighurs.
AFP witnessed Han Chinese mobs assaulting two Uighurs in separate attacks, and Uighurs alleged many other beatings took place, but the extent of the violence throughout the week was unclear.
China poured in thousands of extra police and army troops on Tuesday, and the Urumqi government said the situation was under control the next day.
Many security forces remained in place on Friday, and the traditional Muslim day of prayer passed with many Uighurs and other Muslims such as from the Hui ethnic group unable to attend mosques.
“Go home to pray,” said handwritten notices on the front gates of five shuttered mosques that AFP visited on Thursday.
The Liu Daowan mosque in a Uighur and Hui district of eastern Urumqi, which normally holds about 1,000 people, was also closed on Friday, according to an AFP reporter who went there.
The small Xida mosque that Hui normally attend was also shut.
“According to an order from higher up, out of concern for the safety of the people and during this special time, we ask all people to go home and pray there,” a notice outside said.
“We don't want to give the criminal element a chance to ruin the situation. The government fears that the bad elements will try to use Islam to promote the three forces,” said an assistant imam named Feng.
When asked if all mosques in Urumqi were closed on Friday, a spokesman for the Xinjiang regional government told AFP that “all religious activities should go on normally”, without elaborating.
China's leaders vowed on Thursday to severely punish those responsible for this week's unrest, the nation's worst ethnic conflict for decades.
“The planners of the incident, the organizers, key members and the serious violent criminals must be severely punished,” President Hu Jintao and the other eight members of the ruling Communist Party's elite Politburo said.
Local party leaders in Urumqi had on Wednesday warned that people involved in any killings would be sentenced to death, and earlier announced that more than 1,400 people had been arrested for their involvement in the unrest.