CAIRO – While millions of Muslims worldwide prepare for the spiritual hajj to Makkah early next week, China’s Uighur Muslims are giving up their dream of the life-time journey under the security oppression of the home country.
“We cannot get a passport,” the father of Mehmet Ali, not his real name, told The Hindu newspaper.
“If we want to go on a government trip, we will have to pay 70,000 yuan (Rs.5. 46 lakh).
“Even we can afford it, it's difficult to get the approval.”
Ali, his father and two brothers have been dreaming for years of joining millions of Muslims for the spiritual life-time journey to Makkah.
But having the permit to travel to hajj has become even harder following recently imposed curbs on passport issuance for Uighurs.
Ali said police stations across Xinjiang had, in recent months, completely stopped issuing passports.
The new restrictions were applied since 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
However, the ban did not include Xinjiang's Han residents who are still issued passports.
Without “connections”, Uighurs said, it was impossible to obtain a passport and travel to Makkah.
It was “impossible to travel if you don't work for the government, or know someone who does,” Ali’s father said.
According to official data, China has 20 million Muslims, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai regions and provinces.
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several rituals, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Nationwide, about 13,800 Chinese Muslim pilgrims are scheduled to take 41 chartered flights to Makkah for the annual Hajj this year.
Worse still, Chinese authorities have also clamped down on “unofficial” travels to Makkah.
“The government does not want Uighurs to travel on their own,” Ali’s father said.
“So we can never go to Makkah.”
Putting more restrictions on the Muslim minority, the State Administration for Religious Affairs has earlier this year mandated new rules it said would improve “the management of Hajj work.”
The new rules say Uighurs, and other Chinese Muslims, were only allowed to travel to Makkah if they go on trips organized by the state-controlled Islamic Association of China (IAC).
With the IAC rarely accepted applications, the rules were imposed to ban Uighurs from illegally immigrating or joining extremist groups, A charge Uighurs reject.
In October last year, the Xinjiang government said it had “investigated, prosecuted and curbed” activities of “illegal organizations” that organized independent pilgrimages.
In Uighur neighborhoods in Urumqi and in Kashgar, the government has put up signs warning locals to avoid going on “illegal” pilgrimages.
In 2007, Chinese authorities initiated a campaign to restrict "unsanctioned pilgrimages" from Xinjiang, according to diplomatic cables from the United States Embassy in Beijing, leaked by whistleblower website Wikileaks.
A cable from December 19, 2007 quoted a Saudi diplomat as telling US officials that China had asked Saudi Arabia to bar issuance of Hajj permits to Chinese citizens outside of China.
Chinese officials had also said they would "definitely stop any would-be pilgrims seeking to depart China by means other than a government-organized tour."
"They would not allow the Hajj pilgrims to board the plane," the Saudi Consul in Beijing was quoted as telling US diplomats.
Xinjiang has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of massive security crackdowns by Chinese authorities.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression against Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million, in Xinjiang in the name of counter terrorism.
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