BEIJING, May 13, 2006 ( & News Agencies) - The Islamic Association of China (IAC) will set up a special office to assist Chinese Muslims making pilgrimages to Makkah, Saudi Arabia.
"This is the first time China has set up a special pilgrimage service for the country's 20 million Muslims," IAC Vice-Chairman Yang Zhibo told Chinese news agency Xinhua Saturday, May 13.
Yang estimated that more than 8,000 Chinese would make a pilgrimage in 2007.
The number of Chinese making the spiritual journey has been rising steadily.
This year it was 7,000. Since 1985, nearly 100,000 Chinese Muslims have completed the pilgrimage.
One of the five pillars of Islam, hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim -- who can financially afford the trip -- must perform hajj once in their lifetime.
According to official data, China has 20 million Muslims, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai regions and provinces. Smaller Muslim communities can also be found throughout interior China.
Islam came to China via Muslim businessman during the era of the Tang Dynasty. There have also been reports of companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) coming to China.
Service Improved
Yang said that the IAC will introduce more facilities to the faithful to make the journey much easier.
"Our service has also improved," Yang said.
He noted that pilgrims could leave the country now through four cities: Beijing, Lanzhou, Urumqi and Kunming.
A fifth exit port was planned in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, home of most of the Hui ethnic minority, China's second largest Muslim minority group.
Local branches of the IAC offered training programs for first-time pilgrims, Yang said.
"To better serve Muslims, we will add English, international travel tips and emergency treatment to our programs," he noted.
He also said the IAC would help pilgrims outside peak times, starting in August and September this year.
Sources with Air China told Xinhua that chartered flights would now carry pilgrims direct to Makkah.
Chinese Muslims have been complaining about government marginalization and heavy-handed police treatment.
International human rights organizations have chided the Chinese government in several reports for its poor human rights record in predominantly Muslim regions, particularly Xinjiang.
Human Rights Watch has said in a recent report that Chinese policy in Xinjiang "denies Uighurs religious freedom, and by extension freedom of association, assembly, and expression."
The Uighurs are a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million whose traditional homeland lies in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in north-west China.
Chinese Muslim leaders have charged that China was using the US-championed "war on terror" to justify its crushing campaign of religious oppression and rights abuses.