Xinjiang: Where Islam thrives in China
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
KUCHA, China (CNN) -- In China's remote northwest region of Xinjiang, Islam thrives among the ethnically Turkic group called Uighurs.
As the call to prayer rings out, devout Muslims answer, packing the government-approved mosque. But these Muslims practice their religion with certain restrictions.
"If one chooses to believe in Islam, we welcome them," says the mosque's religious leader.
After September 11, Xinjiang officials have tried to link Uighur dissidents with terrorism, accusing them of using religion as a cover.
"They first gather people in underground meetings to brainwash them on certain religious beliefs, then teach them how to organize to overthrow the government," says Omarjan Mirzahmat, district commissioner for the region of Aksu.
The imams may preach to the faithful but they may not seek converts outside the mosques.
Residents in this predominantly Muslim region continue to practice religion even after September 11 as long as they don't cross certain lines.
Imams and their followers may not engage in politics and may not advocate a separate Muslim state.
Chinese officials claim that one thousand Uighur dissidents have received weapons and training from the Taliban and the al Qaeda networks.
But observers say the root cause of Uighur dissidence is economics.
Uighurs coexist with other ethnic groups, including a growing number of Han Chinese. Leaders concede it's not a totally peaceful coexistence.
"Small problems between ethnic groups exist because of religious and cultural differences. It's just like siblings quarrel with a family. It's normal," says the director of the predominantly Mongolian prefecture of Bayangol.
Xinjiang officials say ethnic groups enjoy autonomy, and even exceptions to rigid rules. Couples in places like Aksu may have three or even four children, while Han Chinese are limited to one child per couple.
But some Uighurs complain that the Han Chinese dominate the local economy and politics -- often at their expense.
One Uighur couple, both made redundant two years ago, now sell garments in a clothing market -- but earn little profits. They are forced to live with their family.
The former taxi driver and nurse worry about the future, especially of their two small children.
"We both worked for our companies for a long time. We don't even have a place to live now," they explain.
"My son will need to go to school, which needs money. We're both laid off, with no money. I have a lot to say, but I can't say them in a few words. The more I say, the sadder I feel," said 35 year-old nurse Maila.
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