Next week, 13,800 Muslims from around China will undertake a pilgrimage to Makkah.
But Mehmet Ali (name changed) will not be among them. Neither will his father and two brothers, who have long given up hope of ever undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage.
For the eight million Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang — a desert region in China's far west — travelling to Makkah has become harder than ever following recently imposed curbs on issuing passports to Uighurs. The measures came into force in the wake of violent attacks in the city of Kashgar and Hotan in July.
The Chinese government has also clamped down on “unofficial” travels to Makkah. The State Administration for Religious Affairs earlier this year mandated new rules to improve “the management of Hajj work”, saying Uighurs, and other Chinese Muslims, were only allowed to travel to Makkah if they go on trips organised by the state-controlled Islamic Association of China (IAC).
The government fears that Uighurs may either illegally emigrate or become indoctrinated by extremist groups — concerns that many Uighurs say are exaggerated and have effectively made it impossible for ordinary Uighurs to leave China. Ali, and a dozen other Uighur residents in the Sanshixia district of Urumqi, Xinjiang's regional capital, said in recent interviews with The Hindu that the IAC rarely accepted applications, and police stations across Xinjiang had, in recent months, completely stopped issuing passports. Without “connections”, they said, it was impossible to obtain a passport and travel to Makkah. The Xinjiang regional government's press office could not be reached for comment.
The regional government has put in place intermittent passport bans since 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Following attacks in Kashgar and Hotan in July, which were blamed by the regional government on terrorists with links to camps in Pakistan, local authorities have once again put a blanket ban on issuing passports to Uighurs across Xinjiang, though Han residents — China's majority group — are still issued passports.
China has 20 million Muslims. The 10-million-strong Hui ethnic community, residing mainly in western Ningxia, is the biggest group.
The state-run Xinhua news agency reported that 13,800 pilgrims from across China will travel to Makkah this year on 41 chartered flights, between November 5 and 9.
Every pilgrim will be on an official trip, run by the IAC. Many trips, officials said, would include “patriotic education”. Officials from Xinjiang and other provinces will accompany the pilgrims and supervise the tour.
In October last year, the Xinjiang government said it had “investigated, prosecuted and curbed” activities of “illegal organisations” that organised independent pilgrimages. In Uighur neighbourhoods 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 telling U.S. 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-organised tour."
"They would not allow the Hajj pilgrims to board the plane," the Saudi Consul in Beijing was quoted as telling U.S. diplomats.
An offical in the Xinjiang regional government, who was also a member of the State-run Xinjiang Islamic Association, told U.S. diplomats that Xinjiang's Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission wanted "zero" unsanctioned pilgrimages.
The cable also quoted a Pakistani businessman in Kashgar as saying that authorities were denying border-crossing cards to Uighurs - but not to Han residents - to prevent overland Hajj journeys through Islamabad.
The Xinjiang official said individuals could not join the official trips unless they passed a health exam, were between 50 and 70 years of age and paid 22,000 yuan (Rs. 1.71 lakh) from their personal funds.
The age restrictions applied only to pilgrims from Xinjiang, and not other provinces.
Between two and three thousand pilgrims are expected to travel from Xinjiang this year. Local officials acknowledge that demand for official trips, despite the high costs involved, have far exceeded the slots available.
Ali's father said it was “impossible to travel if you don't work for the government, or know someone who does”.
“We cannot get a passport,” he said. “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.” “The government,” he added, “does not want Uighurs to travel on their own. So we can never go to Makkah.”