Muslims are flying into Mecca in their thousands for the Haj, but many followers in China have been grounded by bureaucratic hurdles and political obstacles.
In the streets of Khotan, where the aroma of roasting mutton kebabs and cardamom tea fill the bazaar, one young Muslim merchant was despairing. His parents made the pilgrimage several years ago â€“ before officials introduced character checks on would-be pilgrims. He said: â€œNow the Government is afraid that when we go abroad we will say bad things about them. So they want to be careful who they allow.â€
Merchants in embroidered kufis drift into the main mosque. In the streets, bakers slap nan bread slabs into wood-fired ovens. Only a few ethnic Han Chinese are to be seen in this town on the fabled Silk Route to the south of the vast Taklamakan desert in western China. It is barely a hundred years since China began to consolidate its rule over this region whose name, Xinjiang, tellingly means â€œNew Frontier.â€ The atheist communist rulers in Beijing say that freedom of worship is guaranteed for the regionâ€™s Uighurs, who nevertheless say that they are restricted by limits on their devotion to their religion.
The first aircraft carrying pilgrims on this yearâ€™s hajj flew out of the western city of Lanzhou last week. A total of 10,700 peopleâ€“up from 9,799 in 2006â€“will be allowed to make hajj this year under quotas imposed on the Uighur minority, who live in the far west of China and have deeply Islamic neighbours including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. The influence of the official limits simmers beneath the surface. At a grave, or mazar, to an ancient hero in the desert dunes outside the town, a sign above the gate is written in cursive Uighur and in Chinese characters. It reads: â€œProtect legal religious activities. Crack down on illegal religious activities.â€
An elderly cleric murmured: â€œChildren arenâ€™t allowed to come to the mosques to pray. Not until they are 18 and they have a better understanding.â€ The imam said that he had no anxiety that such restraints would dilute religious fervour.
Children learnt about Islam from their parents in the home. â€œAnd when the young come here, we are remote and the police turn a blind eye,â€ the cleric said. He was less confident of his chances of visiting Mecca. â€œSo far, I havenâ€™t been able to get approval from the police,â€ he said.
He said that he must meet five criteria, including providing proof that he has never been involved in antiChinese violence and that he has no links to independence groups. Only then can he be allocated one of the precious places in the government-organised groups to Mecca.
Religious officials in Xinjiang declined to reveal the conditions to which Muslim pilgrims must conform. One said: â€œThis is a state secret.â€ Some of the faithful were more candid. One said: â€œWe have to give as much as 20,000 yuan (about $2,500) to the police or to a powerful friend to get on the list.â€
Tureali Haji, a businessman, is one of the lucky ones. He made the trip in â€˜99, before new rules in 2004 required everyone to take part in a state-organized group. This year, Khotan will be allowed almost 600 places on the Haj, up from the limit of 400 last year.
The young merchant smiled shyly when asked about antiChinese unrest in the region. â€œAs long as they allow me to go to Mecca one day, as long as I can find the money, then that will be good enough for me,â€ he said.