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Unregistered
24-10-06, 17:34
http://china.scmp.com/chitoday/ZZZN568QLTE.html

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Hurdles on the road to Mecca for mainland Muslims

KRISTINE KWOK

Arzuguli Saidulla closed her hardware store in Urumqi, Xinjiang, early last month and left home on the journey of a lifetime for most Muslims - her first haj pilgrimage to Mecca.

But before arriving in Islam's holiest city, the 42-year-old and more than 5,000 other pilgrims from the northwestern region first headed to Pakistan. They were following in the footsteps of many other Xinjiang Muslims, who have routinely obtained Saudi Arabian visas from the kingdom's embassy in Islamabad before the annual pilgrimage.

This year it took much longer for the Chinese Muslims to get their visas. Ms Saidulla, a mother of one, finally got her visa on October 14.

"It was so tiresome that we had to go to the embassy every day to wait for the visa," Ms Saidulla said from Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. "There were so many people."

The long wait was the result of a change in policy after the Chinese and Saudi governments agreed in May that all Chinese passport holders on the haj must go through the official channels organised by the mainland's government-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Islamic Association, instead of a third country.

This meant pilgrims should collect visas through the Saudi embassy in Beijing and a permit from the Chinese Patriotic Islamic Association.

Upset by the refusal of the Saudi embassy in Islamabad to issue them with visas, the Xinjiang Muslims, some of whom arrived in Pakistan as early as August, protested outside the embassy for weeks until the Saudi government relented on October 3 and said visa requests would be processed in Pakistan again this year - for the last time.

"We were thrilled by the announcement, I never thought going on the haj could be this tedious," Ms Saidulla said. She finally set off for Saudi Arabia on October 15.

An official from the Islamic branch of the mainland Ministry of Religious Affairs, who gave his surname as Ma, said the new policy was designed to weed out "illegal snakeheads" who were making money by organising haj tours. "Haj is a religious activity, it should be organised by a religious organisation," he said.

But the Washington-based Uygur American Association said the change of policy could be a way to control the number of Uygurs undertaking the pilgrimage.

"Or it could be a measure to more effectively monitor who is going on pilgrimage," the association said in a statement.

Li Jinxin , a researcher from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, said that by requiring the pilgrims to travel in government-organised groups, the authorities were also trying to prevent the Muslims from contacting undesirable foreign influences, such as terrorists, extreme religious groups and pro-independence groups.

"There have been cases that when some Xinjiang Muslims went on the haj by themselves or through underground groups, they built up contacts with those people. This has caused concern in the government," he said.

Considered the world's biggest Islamic event, the haj attracts millions of pilgrims from around the globe to Mecca every January. The Koran says that every able-bodied Muslim should make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime if they can afford to do so.

Ms Saidulla is among a surging number of Chinese Muslims joining the Mecca pilgrims as China's economic boom helps to lift their living standards.

In the 1980s, Professor Li said, only a few hundred Muslims from Xinjiang would apply for a visa each year through the Patriotic Islamic Association. That figure had jumped to around 10,000 in recent years, he said.

But the surge in demand had been confined by a quota imposed by the Patriotic Islamic Association, which allowed only about 2,000 Xinjiang Muslims to go on the haj last year, Professor Li said.

The limited seats had sent would-be pilgrims, especially those without official connections, in search of visas in third countries such as Pakistan and Thailand.

"In the past, it was economic hardship that put people off from performing the pilgrimage. Now a lot more people have the financial ability to do so, but they still find it difficult to go to Mecca because of the quota imposed by the Islamic Association," Professor Li said. He said that in some cases those wishing to make the pilgrimage had to bribe the authorities to get a visa.

"Some people have complained to me that they were rejected by the Islamic Association five years in a row," he said.

Magied Alshamry, the head of the visa section at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Beijing, is also upset by the quota.

"I'd love to grant visas to everyone who comes to us, but they won't be able to leave China when they go to the airport without a permit from the Islamic Association. It's an embarrassment to us. It's a waste of my time and of our visas. The haj pilgrimage is for every Muslim in the world." But Mr Ma from the Ministry of Religious Affairs denied the mainland had ever imposed a quota.

He said the official Muslim population in China was around 21 million and the quota would be imposed only when applications reached 20,000.

The Chinese Patriotic Islamic Association had received up to 9,000 haj visa applications so far and the eventual figure was expected to top 10,000, Mr Ma said.

About 6,900 mainland Muslims performed the pilgrimage through the association last year, he added.

Professor Li said most Chinese haj pilgrims were Muslims from Xinjiang and members of the Hui minority, who preferred to apply for visas in Thailand.

Xinjiang Muslims have been collecting their Saudi visas in Pakistan since as early as 1980s, before China established diplomatic relations with Islamabad in 1990, according to Abdulla Ahmad, a Xinjiang native who is now a business consultant in Beijing.

By going to a third country, Chinese Muslims could travel to Mecca without a permit from the Chinese Patriotic Islamic Association and avoid expensive tour packages provided by the authorities, he said.

"Most of the haj pilgrims are from southern Xinjiang, and most of them are impoverished and poorly educated. They think it will be cheaper to go through unofficial channels via Pakistan," Mr Ahmad said.

"But it doesn't necessarily save them money because they are sometimes ripped off or cheated."

Ms Saidulla said she would rather have got her visa in Beijing.

"They didn't tell me about this when I collected my visa to Pakistan in Beijing. If I knew about this I would definitely apply for a Saudi visa in Beijing. That would have saved me a lot of time and I wouldn't be away from home for such a long time," she said.

Mr Ahmad, who plans to go on the haj in the next few years, said the new policy would make it safer for the pilgrims.

"Most Chinese Muslims can't speak the local language in Mecca, and some have never travelled abroad. It happens a lot that they get lost there," he said.

Unregistered
25-10-06, 04:30
The Xinjiang Authorities stopped issuing any Passports For Uyghurs over 16 years of age to stop them to go to Haj.

They said they would start issuing Chinese passport for Uyhgurs after the pilgrimage.

It can not work even if you have the proof that you are not going to go to Haj.

They are using any method to stop Uyhgurs go overseas. However, there are no nonsence regulations for those ethnic Chinese and Tongans.

For an ordinary Uyghur, who claimed to be a Chinese citizen by Chinese authorities, obtaining a passport to visit a relative in overseas is a great struggle.