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Chinese Muslims: A Journey of Faith and Fear

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China is making it tough for its Muslim citizens to embark on the Hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime religious duty to visit the holy city of Mecca. With tensions around religion escalating, the journey of faith is turning into a journey of fear.

In the town of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a group of six Chinese Muslims prepared for a trip that meant everything to them. Their goal: to visit Mecca. They had left their homes suddenly, trading in their traditional religious attire for regular athletic wear, in the hopes that they would not be detected leaving China.

One of the male travelers spoke about their determination, “When we return to China, we may lose our passports, but we’ll face whatever comes.” This group’s journey shines a light on the lengths China is going to in order to monitor and stop its citizens from taking this pilgrimage. Yet, their resilience also showcases the ways believers are finding to outsmart these measures. For their safety, their names and exact home location remain confidential.

Religious practices in China, especially for Christianity and Islam, are facing strong crackdowns. Numerous mosques have been demolished or had their iconic domes removed. Islamic schools have been shut down, and religious leaders are under constant surveillance.

One significant reason given for these measures is China’s fear of its citizens being radicalized abroad or sparking religious enthusiasm when they return. There have been cases where public security officers coerced pilgrims already abroad to come back to China. If these pilgrims went to Hajj without state permission, they might be detained or arrested upon their return. One of the pilgrims pointed out, “China wants to control you even when you are outside the country.”

However, the first big hurdle is getting a passport. China’s restrictions on passport issuance, especially for Muslims, make it a significant challenge. In some provinces, like Qinghai, new passports are not being issued to Uyghurs or Hui, both major Muslim ethnic groups.

To put this in perspective, imagine wanting to travel and being told you can’t because of your beliefs. This isn’t a new strategy. It’s similar to what was done in the Xinjiang region, where passports were taken from Uyghur citizens in 2016.

Yet, even with these challenges, the six pilgrims managed to get their passports three years earlier. Their journey was filled with uncertainty. From making detours to avoid detection to dressing differently to hide their faith, every step was a calculated risk.

Their journey took them first to Guangzhou, China. But they faced questioning from police about their reasons for leaving their province. Worried, they changed their route and went through multiple Chinese cities before heading to Malaysia, a country with a majority Muslim population.

In Malaysia, the weight of their arduous journey hit them. Visiting one of Kuala Lumpur’s largest mosques, they couldn’t hold back their tears.

Yet even after leaving China, the pressure didn’t stop. While in Saudi Arabia, these pilgrims were continuously wary. They received threatening calls from Chinese officers, and some of their fellow travelers were forced to return to China out of fear for their families.

Their story is one among many. In another part of the world, in Istanbul, two Uyghur children described their traumatic experience of being separated from their family and placed in boarding schools in Xinjiang, China. Their heads were shaved, and they were subjected to physical punishment. By the time they could return home to Turkey, they had become malnourished, traumatized, and even forgot how to speak their native languages.

Religious and ethnic minorities in China are living with fear and facing significant challenges. Yet, their stories of resilience and faith shine a light on the indomitable human spirit. Whether it’s a pilgrimage to a holy site or just the desire to live freely with one’s family, these stories remind us of the lengths people will go to for their beliefs and loved ones.

https://www.npr.org/2023/08/17/1189860622/china-muslims-mecca-hajj-travel-surveillance

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