Mosques in riot-hit Urumqi were ordered to stay closed for Friday prayers in the wake of ethnic violence that has killed at least 156 people, an official said yesterday.
The prayers after midday are a focal point of the week for the minority Muslim Uighurs in Urumqi, and Chinese authorities took the rare step of restricting them in apparent attempts to deter any large, emotional gatherings at the mosques.
“For the sake of public safety all of the mosques have told people that there will be no Friday prayers and that people should stay at home today and pray,” said the official at the Yang Hang mosque in downtown Urumqi.
She said she was a government worker but refused to give her name.
Outside the mosque with its gold dome and twin minarets, people stopped to read a white paper notice canceling Friday prayers. One middle-aged Uighur woman who would not give her name said she thought the mosque should stay open.
“It’s not necessary to close it because everyone who enters the mosque is a Muslim. It will be safe,” she said.
“We just don’t have any power,” she added, then was pulled away by her husband.
Nearby, an elderly Han Chinese woman interrupted a foreign reporter before he could talk to two elderly Uighur women in long traditional dresses and headscarves.
“Of course, the mosque should be closed. Just look at all the damage that has been done,” the Han Chinese woman said in a loud voice.
“This is a patriotic move for the sake of the well-being of all the ethnic groups,” she said before stomping away without giving her name. The other two quietly walked away as well.
The violence in Urumqi began on Sunday when Uighurs clashed with police while protesting deaths of Uighur factory workers in a brawl in another part of the country. The crowd then scattered throughout Urumqi, attacking Han Chinese, burning cars and smashing windows.
Riot police tried to restore order, and officials said 156 people were killed and more than 1,100 were injured.
Thousands of security forces have been patrolling the streets, but that wasn’t enough to keep vengeful Han Chinese mobs from hunting down Uighurs on Tuesday.
Top Chinese Communist Party leaders have said that ending the ethnic feuding was now “the most urgent task.”
An official at the China Islamic Association in Beijing, who gave only his surname Jin, said mosques in China had been ordered to suspend Friday prayers before, during the country’s outbreak of SARS in 2003.
“Our religion is quite flexible, so it’s possible to cancel for the benefit of everyone,” Jin said.
The head of the association, Chen Guangyuan (陳廣元), in an excerpt from a speech posted on the association’s Web site yesterday, said the violence was caused by “evil people” intend on causing ethnic splits.
“Don’t be fooled by evil people,” Chen said.
Uighurs generally practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam that was prevalent in Central Asia under Soviet rule. More militant and austere forms of Islam have made inroads in recent decades. But the government controls the appointments of clerics, helping to deny a pulpit to imams who disagree with official policies.
Restrictions on their religion already rankle among Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who have complained about the influx of Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of China’s population, in the remote western region.