China has introduced new rules banning non-official pilgrimages to Mecca, a move observers said was another attempt by the Communist Party to control religious affairs.
In rules issued on Monday for the Muslim pilgrimage, known as the haj, the State Administration for Religious Affairs said all such trips to Saudi Arabia must be arranged by the Islamic Association of China, an organisation controlled by the party’s international outreach arm, the United Front Work Department.
Independent personal pilgrimages are not allowed.
“The association should educate haj attendees on patriotic and safe behaviour, strengthen the management of attendees, and prevent the infiltration of religious extremist thinking and behaviour that endangers national security,” the administration said in the rules.
Human rights groups estimate that more than 1 million Turkic-speaking Uygur people and other Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps and some subjected to forced labour.
Beijing says the camps are vocational centres to combat extremism.
Nury Turkel, a Uygur-American rights advocate who serves on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that banning “illegal hajs” and allowing only official pilgrimages to Mecca had been a policy since 2005 but the new rules now specified how the Chinese authorities would select haj participants.
Only pilgrims who are “patriotic”, “law-abiding”, have “good behaviour” and can fund the trip on their own will be approved, according to the regulation.
“The measures impose a political test for Muslims who want to go on the pilgrimage. It is highly likely that the government discriminates against certain Muslim groups because of this political test – particularly Uygur Muslims, which is not a new phenomenon,” Turkel said.
The haj is a religious duty that Muslims are required to complete once during their life.
It is one of the five pillars of Islam along with the profession of faith, prayer, charity, and fasting.
Centrally organised haj for Chinese Muslims began in 1985, when a quota and payment system was set up. The system focused on areas with significant Muslim populations such as Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, and Qinghai, according to the religious affairs administration.
Private trips were possible but difficult to arrange without the proper paperwork because the Saudi government also bans what it deems an “illegal haj”.
Turkel said Chinese authorities had harassed and even tortured Muslims who made independent pilgrimages.
He also said Uygurs accounted for a small proportion of participants on approved haj trips because of official limitations, problems getting passports and a requirement that Uygur pilgrims be at least 60 years old.
In 2017, out of an estimated 12,000 Muslims who went on the government-organised haj, only 1,400 were Uygurs even though they are the second-largest Muslim group in China, according to the Society for Threatened Peoples, a rights group based in Germany.
Courtesy – SCMP