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Authorities have placed a Chinese flag at the head of a mosque in western China, forcing ethnic Uyghurs to bow to it when they worship, Uyghur activists said Wednesday.
The local government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Aksu area placed the flag over the mihrab -- the traditional prayer niche that points the direction to Mecca -- prominent Uyghur rights advocate Ilham Tohti told Al Jazeera. He called it an effort to “dilute the religious environment” in the area, where minority Uyghurs often complain of ethnic and religious repression.
Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify the report at time of publication, and Aksu officials did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
Reports from Uyghurs in the area said the placement of the flag has upset residents amid a series of fresh religious restrictions, which analysts say Beijing hopes will integrate Uyghurs into Chinese society and pacify the strategically important region. Xinjiang is perennially rocked by clashes between Muslim Uyghurs and China’s majority ethnic Han Chinese.
“They placed the flag at a very sensitive place in the mosque,” Tohti said, explaining that he has seen Chinese flags prominently positioned in mosques in China before -- but never in such a sensitive spot.
Tohti noted that Muslims pray facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia, but Chinese law and authorities demand unwavering allegiance to Beijing.
“They are essentially saying the flag is higher than religion,” he said.
Authorities in Xinjiang have recently imposed new restrictions on religious behavior. These including posting signs across the region barring women from wearing headscarves in public venues.
Tohti said the religious restrictions -- in a Chinese region bordered by Kyrgzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- are part of Beijing’s attempts to secure its business inroads in Central Asia, which analysts say is set to become a leading source of China’s natural energy imports.
“China is opening up its foreign affairs to the West. They hope not to have any problems as they expand their influence, especially not in Xinjiang. They are worried about this danger,” Tohti said.
China’s efforts to promote calm in a region that is key to its economic endeavors appear to be two-pronged. New religious restrictions compound decades-old bans on minors entering mosques to receive religious instruction and attempt to curb traditional fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The government has also engaged in a protracted crackdown on what Beijing calls violent Uyghur separatists.
Radio Free Asia reported Tuesday that local officials said 12 more Uyghurs had been killed in a raid in western Xinjiang last month, bringing the total reported dead in crackdowns that month to 34.
Beijing attributed the ethnic clashes that killed at least 21 in April and another 27 in July -- after similar riots that killed hundreds in 2008 and 2009 -- to what it calls "terrorist" and "separatist" groups. Uyghurs say the assailants are upset with social repression and a lack of opportunities to partake in the Han Chinese-dominated local economy.
“In (his recent visit to) Central Asian states, President Xi [Jinping] was really pointing out a Uyghur terrorist threat,” said Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor specializing on Chinese and Central Asian affairs.
“In context of U.S. military pull-out of Afghanistan, China is concerned about ruffling feathers of Muslim populations to the West, as they have large plans of expansion of influence into Pakistan and Central Asian Muslim majority countries,” he said.
But Roberts said it appears that Beijing's current methods are less than effective.
“Putting myself in the position of Chinese bureaucrats, their strategy is not working, so they are pushing it harder and harder. And their strategy is only exacerbating the problem.”
Tohti offered his own suggestions for a new strategy.
“If China really believes Uyghurs are part of the country, then meet your responsibility to them. Uyghurs are impoverished and have no rights. China needs to improve their living standards,” Tohti said.