China allows Friday prayers

URUMQI: Boisterous crowds turned up at mosques in riot-hit parts of this western Chinese city, ignoring orders canceling Friday prayers due to the ethnic violence, and police quickly broke up a small protest nearby.

About 100 men argued with guards, demanding they be let in for prayers at the White Mosque — near the Muslim Uighur neighborhood that saw some of the worst violence after angry protests Sunday spiraled into a riot that left at least 156 dead, many of them from China's Han majority.

A Uighur policeman guarding the mosque, who would not give his name, said: "We decided to open the mosque because so many people had gathered. We did not want an incident."

Nearby, on Liberation Road, a group of about 40 Uighur men and women began to march, shouting, crying and pumping their fists in the air as they walked.

Madina Ahtam, a woman in a multicolored headscarf, begged foreign reporters to stay with them as they walked.

"Every Uighur people are afraid," she said in English. "Do you understand? We are afraid. ... The problem? Police."

A group of 10 police in bulletproof vests and helmets and armed with batons and stun guns blocked their march within minutes. Shortly after, several dozen more police surrounded the group and forced them to squat on the sidewalk. Police pushed journalists away from the area and detained at least four foreign journalists, holding them for several hours.

Kaishar, a 23-year-old car salesman, said his heart hurt when he first saw that the gates to the mosque were closed.

"There was no reason to shut the gate. They said it was for our safety but actually there is no need; nothing will happen here," said Kaishar, with a red prayer mat folded under his arm.

It was not known how many of the mosques across the city of 2.3 million people were opened.

A few blocks from the White Mosque, at the Yang Hang mosque, hundreds of men streamed in clutching green, red and blue prayer mats. A white notice that had been glued to the front gate canceling the day's service was gone.

An mosque official, who refused to give her name, had said earlier the closure was ordered for public safety reasons after the widespread ethnic violence between Uighurs (pronounced WEE-ger) and Han Chinese. She didn't elaborate.

The government has imposed curfews and flooded the streets with security forces to avoid a repeat of the running street battles earlier in the week.

Officials in the city of Kashgar, an historic Uighur cultural and commercial center near Xinjiang's border with Pakistan, declared the city off-limits to reporters in all but name. Foreign reporters were not allowed to leave their hotels, except to travel to the airport. An Associated Press photographer was detained repeatedly and escorted to the airport. The effect was to make it impossible for reporters to work.

"There are no conditions for interviews in Kashgar, so we hope the foreign reporters will leave for their own safety," said Chen Li, a media officer with the city government.

In Urumqi, officials gave conflicting information about the closing of mosques. The secretary-general of the Urumqi Islamic Association, who would give only his surname Ma, denied there had been any shutdown order and said some mosques may have decided to do so independently.

A man from the Urumqi Administration for Religious Affairs, who refused to give his name, said only mosques in areas unaffected by the violence were allowed to open. In areas where severe violence took place, mosques were closed for people's safety, he said.

The official Xinhua News Agency, citing an unidentified religious affairs official in the Xinjiang government, said it was customary for mosques to close in times of trouble. "Muslims normally perform rituals at home in times of plague or social unrest," the official was quoted as saying.

Xinhua said mosques elsewhere in Xinjiang remained open.

Despite tight state control over Islam — imams are paid and vetted by the government — there are too many mosques in Xinjiang to enforce a mass closure, said Barry Sautman, who specializes in China's ethnic politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. There are 23,000 mosques in Xinjiang, the highest mosque-to-Muslim ratio in the world, and that provides room for some anti-government critics to slip through, said Sautman.

"It's impossible to control such an extensive number of religious personnel," Sautman said. In rural areas, he said, many officials in charge of religious affairs are Uighurs and are more sympathetic to Islam.

The violence in Urumqi (pronounced uh-ROOM-chee) began Sunday when Uighurs clashed with police while protesting the deaths of Uighur factory workers in a brawl in another part of the country. The crowd then scattered throughout Urumqi, attacking Han Chinese, burning cars and smashing windows. Riot police tried to restore order, and officials said 156 people were killed and more than 1,100 were injured.

The official Xinhua News Agency quoted the director of the Urumqi Civil Affairs Bureau, Wang Fengyun, as saying that families of innocent civilians killed in Sunday's riot would each receive 200,000 yuan (about $30,000) for each fatality.