Source: New York Times
The head of China’s largest mosque, a vocal defender of the Communist Party’s ethnic policies in the troubled region of Xinjiang, was stabbed to death Wednesday in the Silk Road city of Kashgar, state media reported on Thursday.
The religious leader, Jume Tahir, a vice president of the state-run Xinjiang Islamic Association and the imam of the Id Kah Mosque, a 15th-century landmark at the heart of the city, was attacked just outside the mosque shortly after morning prayers, the government-run Xinhua news agency said.
One local shopkeeper described the crime as an assassination, most likely retaliation for the imam’s support for China’s increasingly hard-line governance of Xinjiang, a vast, strategically pivotal region that is home to China’s Uighur minority, a Turkic-speaking people who are largely Sunni Muslim.
“Jume Tahir had a lot of enemies,” the shopkeeper, who declined to give his name for fear of angering the authorities, said during a brief phone interview.
According to Xinhua, the police on Wednesday afternoon shot and killed two suspects, who they said had resisted arrest, and apprehended a third man in the imam’s murder.
Zhang Chunxian, the region’s Communist Party secretary, condemned the killing and vowed to intensify the government’s battle against extremism. “Violent terrorists murdered a religious person in such an atrocious, beastly, cruel way that it exposes once again their evil nature against humanity,” he said, according to Tianshan, a government-run news portal.
Employees at the city’s religious affairs committee declined to comment. The delay in releasing news of the imam’s death reflected in part China’s anxiety over the spiraling bloodshed that has in recent weeks claimed dozens of lives in Xinjiang despite an overwhelming security presence. On Monday, at least 30 people were killed in nearby Yarkant County after what Uighur exile groups described as a protest against government restrictions on the observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, that turned violent. The state-run media, which delayed reporting on the clash for more than a day, called it a terror attack.
Experts say targeted killings of Uighurs associated with the government have been on the rise in Xinjiang. Last August, Abdurehim Damaolla, 74, the deputy chairman of the government-run Islamic association in Turpan, a city not far from the regional capital, Urumqi, was stabbed to death in front of his home.
Two weeks ago, the wife of a Communist Party official in Hotan, another predominantly Uighur prefecture in southern Xinjiang, was killed reportedly during a home invasion that left her husband severely injured. Radio Free Asia, quoting local officials, said the attack was probably in retaliation for the official’s role in rounding up residents during prayer services at a local mosque who were being sought for their role in an earlier skirmish with the police.
Jume Tahir, 74, a former deputy to the National People’s Congress, was among the higher-profile religious leaders in the region, and he was frequently quoted in the state media condemning what the Communist Party calls the “three evils” of separatism, extremism and terrorism.
In 2009, after deadly ethnic rioting claimed at least 200 lives in Urumqi, Jume Tahir sought to dispel the contention, expressed by human rights advocates, that Uighur discontent played a role in the rampage, which initially targeted ethnic Han Chinese.
“It’s foreign forces’ old trick to engage in separatist activities under the religious banner to conceal their ulterior motives,” he told Xinhua.
James Leibold, a professor of Asian studies at La Trobe University in Australia, said many Uighurs have long resented religious leaders aligned with the Communist Party and its effort to control Islamic practices.
“For many Uighurs, especially those who are quite religious, such imams are seen as turncoats who represent the interests of the party-state apparatus,” Professor Leibold said in an interview.