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08-04-08, 19:12
China's Muslim west sees prayers and sparks of unrest
By Lindsay Beck Reuters - Friday, April 4 01:48 pmYARKAND, China (Reuters) - Thousands of Muslims gathered for prayers on Friday in southern Xinjiang, the restive border region where China fears separatist challenges, with low-key security that belied recent sparks of unrest.

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Members of the ethnic Uighur minority, who make up about half of Xinjiang's population, filled the main mosque in the Silk Road town of Yarkand and overflowed into its surrounding square, kneeling for prayers in a show of piety rare in other parts of officially atheist China.

Unlike largely Buddhist Tibet, which has been shaken by unrest, the security presence was thin. But in past weeks, Xinjiang has seen a pro-separatist demonstration and what authorities say was a failed attempt to blow up a plane.

State media said on Friday that Xinjiang authorities were investigating a separatist Islamic group they said spread "reactionary" leaflets and signs in the regional capital Urumqi, Kashgar and other towns in March and launched a protest in Hetian.

"The responsible authorities are now investigating the ringleaders and chief culprits," the China News Service said.

Xinjiang lies next to Tibet, and its top officials have warned against copycat protests by Uighurs.

"That kind of thing couldn't happen here. Those were some bad people", said one 17-year-old resident, referring to the March 14 riot in Tibet's capital Lhasa that followed days of protests advocating for greater autonomy for the Buddhist region.

China says 19 people died in the Lhasa violence but representatives of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, say 140 people died in the unrest across Tibet and nearby.

But the resident, who like nearly all the men in the square wore a Muslim skull-cap, said there was discontent in Xinjiang.

"There are things that we're not satisfied with here," he said. "We don't have the freedom to worship as we wish."

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

China's constitution upholds religious freedom, but in reality all religion must be practised under the eye of the ruling Communist Party.

In Xinjiang, an oil-rich, Central Asian region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, that has meant closures of illegal mosques and unauthorised schools and patriotic education for imams similar to that which was a source of resentment among Tibet's Buddhist monks.

Last month, as many as 1,000 Uighurs staged a demonstration in the Xinjiang town of Hetian, some 300 km (180 miles) southeast of Yarkand, in which the local government said some were carrying separatist flags.

Residents in Yarkand said their town had witnessed nothing of the same.

"We heard of some trouble in Hetian. But even we're not clear what happened there," said 18-year-old student Meteiba.

"It seems it's all a secret. They said on television that something happened, but they didn't say clearly what it was. They just said it was a problem between ethnic groups."

Kashgar, seen as the heart of Islam in the region, also had little security presence, but for a few clusters of patrolling officers wearing fatigues and helmets but otherwise unarmed.

The road to Yarkand saw one truck full of People's Armed Police paramilitaries, but they were also unarmed, a contrast to the thousands of security forces equipped with anti-riot gear that have poured into ethnic Tibetan parts of China.

Still, Meteiba and her 15-year-old cousin said they had heard from friends in Kashgar that at times proclamations advocating independence had gone up briefly outside of school gates, before being torn down.

"They were put up by some separatists," she said. "Our teachers warned us about that."

(Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)