Owing to Beijing’s crackdown on the minority Muslims, the ‘Imams’ belonging to the Uighur Muslim community from Xinjiang province of northwest China have become most vulnerable to persecution.
‘Imam’ is a title in Islam given to a religious staff who leads group prayers at a mosque.
Uyghur Hjelp, a Norway-based Uighur advocacy and aid organization, last week said that Chinese authorities since 2016 have detained at least 518 key Uighur religious figures and Imams.
The organization also said it has found some of the Imams, who were previously trained and employed by Beijing, are now sentenced with long prison terms while a few of them have lost their lives in internment camps.
One of the detained Imams, Abdurkerim Memet, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017, according to his daughter, Hajihenim Abdukerim in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Abdukerim said that Chinese authorities were hiding the whereabouts of her father for years until recently when a local contact in Xinjiang told her of his imprisonment.
The 61-year-old was employed by the Chinese government before his detention to lead prayers at a neighbourhood mosque in Yengisar county in Kashgar city in southern Xinjiang. His family rejects the Chinese government accusation that he was spreading extremism among the Uighurs.
“My father is a peaceful and law-abiding religious figure,” said Abdukerim, adding that her father was salaried by the Chinese government until late 2016 when the newly appointed Communist Party chief, Chen Quanguo, began to further enforce Beijing’s rule over Xinjiang.
“I had never imagined him being imprisoned for serving the community. In these years, I have been only hoping to hear from him again,” she said.
Some experts have also alleged that Chinese officials are increasingly using religious extremism charges to gain a free hand in their campaign against Uighurs and their religious leaders.
Pursuing Imams as the main targets in Xinjiang should not come as a surprise, said Abduweli Ayup, the founder of Uyghur Hjelp.
“They are people who can lead, organize, and mobilize Uighurs in large numbers, and mosques are the only places where Uighur language was kept intact,” he added.
Ayup said the Chinese government was giving the Imams salaries ranging from 600 to 5000 RMB before its clampdown campaign in Xinjiang. The detention, he said, is a part of a larger attempt by the Communist party to prevent a flourishing Uighur identity and culture.
While Imams living in Xinjiang remain most exposed to the Chinese government campaign, those outside are not immune. Families of some Uighur religious figures claim they were possibly tricked into returning to China under false promises.
Meryemgul Abdulla, a Uighur based in Turkey, said that her husband and a religious scholar, Abduhalik Abdulhak, were arrested after returning to China under the false pledge of allowing him to build a museum.