The targeting of Uighur officials or religious leaders has been an
undercurrent of unrest for some 20 years in Xinjiang, where members
of the Uighur minority are unhappy at official restrictions on their
culture and religion.
Jume Tahir, the imam at China's largest mosque, Id Kah, in the Silk
Road city of Kashgar, was killed on Wednesday by three suspected
Islamist militants armed with knives. His predecessor narrowly
survived a knife attack in the same spot in 1996.
But the attack contrasted with most recent violence aimed at the
majority Han ethnic group and may be calculated to persuade Uighurs
to fall in behind what China says are separatists seeking an
independent state called East Turkestan.
"Part of the motivation is not simply to remove and put pressure on
the state-backed officials, but also to make an impact on those who
attend these mosques, the stability minded Uighurs," said Michael
Clarke of Australia's Griffith University.
"In a sense, it is attempting to signal that this is a conflict that
is now society wide. You have to now choose sides."
Tahir, 74, whose name is also spelled Juma Tayir, was a well-known
supporter of Beijing authorities and had backed the government after
security forces crushed 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital.
About 200 people died.
A figure who divided Uighur public opinion, he was killed days after
police shot dead dozens of attackers brandishing knives in a
district about 200 km (125 miles) away, according to the official
Xinhua news agency. China has yet to give a full account of that
State media reported the murder about 36 hours after witnesses
described to Reuters the chaotic scene outside the mosque after
morning prayers. Two attackers were later shot dead by police and
the third was arrested.
All the attackers had Uighur names.
KEY TO THE "CHESSBOARD"
Tensions are running high in Xinjiang, after officials told Muslims
to eschew religious customs during the fasting month of Ramadan,
which rights groups saw as an bid to repress Uighurs.
China punishes the study of Islam outside the confines of tightly
controlled state mosques.
As part of a crackdown on extremism, Xinjiang has offered rewards
for tips on anyone offering independent study of the Koran.
Students, officials and members of the officially atheist Communist
Party are barred from mosques. [ID:nL4N0PF0XO]
[to top of second column]
Henryk Szadziewski of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights
Project, says imams studying in Chinese state-approved Islamic
institutes must adhere to a strict system.
Only a fraction of their time is devoted to the study of Islam, with
most directed at political study sessions. Sermons are subject to
approval and are monitored.
Szadziewski said tight state control
on religion make it difficult to gauge how most Uighurs view
pro-Beijing imams, but he said most wanted nothing to do with
"The vast majority of Uighurs do not perceive assassination as any
kind of positive action for their community, whatever their view,"
he said in emailed responses to questions.
Government leaders say they are aware of a sustained effort needed
to address violence in Xinjiang.
Zhang Chunxian, the region's Communist Party boss, said
poverty-stricken southern Xinjiang, the epicentre of this week's
unrest, was the key to the "chessboard".
"We must put southern Xinjiang as the highest priority in
anti-terrorism and stability maintenance duties," Zhang said in an
article in party journal Qiushi released on Friday.
But so far, experts say, there is no indication that Beijing is
addressing the issues of religious freedom, that, coupled with
economic marginalization of Uighurs and the influx of Han laborers,
has contributed to the region's volatility.
The response to Tahir's murder, Szadziewski said, probably would be
even greater scrutiny of religious practices.
"Misunderstandings and insensitive behavior on the part of state
security can easily develop into incidents that perpetuate the cycle
(Editing by Ron Popeski)
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