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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Islam Grows in China Border Region

KASHGAR, China -- Mosques are mushrooming across China's mainly Moslem Xinjiang region tmeet an increasing demand for places of worship.

Congregations are swelling as increasing numbers of young people among China's Moslem minorities are inspired by Islam in the country's westernmost region.

Students even take time out during lunch hour to perform noon prayers.

The resurgence of Islam in Xinjiang is causing an uneasy relationship between Communist Party officials and Moslem clerics, between Han Chinese and ethnic Uighurs.

"Religious freedom is guaranteed by our constitution and no one can interfere with this," said Tsadik Kara Haji, deputy director of the Kashgar Islamic Association and imam or leader of the great 15th century Aidkah mosque in this ancient Silk Road city, some 500 miles east of the border with Kyrgyzstan.

"But religious activities must be carried out within the limits of the law," he said in an interview.

During recent months, more and more Moslems appeared to be acting outside the country's law, prompting Xinjiang regional authorities to close hundreds of illegal mosques.

Unauthorized schools that preach Islam have also been banned.

Government officials fear anti-Chinese separatists seeking to set up an independent state of East Turkestan are using Islam as a base of popular support.

With Moslems making up almost all the 10 million ethnic minority residents of Xinjiang's 16 million people, Beijing has a lot of watching to do.

Tsadik Kara Haji said that of the 3 million minority residents of the Kashgar district, 2 million were believers. The rest were still too young to be admitted.

"All Uighurs are Moslem," he said.

He did not explain how that sweeping total was able to include government and party officials, who are banned from holding religious beliefs in atheist China.

The region's party chief Wang Lequan has launched a campaign to stop officials from turning to religion -- a sign of the extent of the power of faith that has taken hold since Beijing's guarantee of freedom of religion in 1979.

"I don't drink wine, not since I went to Mecca," said one Uighur official at a dinner. Asked if he was religious, he burst into laughter. "Party members are not allowed to be religious," he said.

No one was convinced.

Such tacit acceptance seemed to extend throughout the region, where Islam arrived more than 1,000 years ago, brought by Silk Road traders to this once Buddhist area.

Moslem clerics have been called to frequent meetings by the government and ordered to ensure no member of their flock strays toward separatism.

This is because Islam poses the greatest peril to China's unity, Xinjiang's top officials have said.

In Kashgar, the heart of Islam in China, senior Moslem clerics insisted that the officially sanctioned faith was loyal to Beijing.

"We carry out religious work, we do not interfere in politics or engage in splittism," said Tsadik Kara Haji, speaking after conducting noon prayers for some 500 faithful in the yellow and white tiled Aidkah mosque.

However, the cleric said he would not use his preaching in the mosque as a platform to disseminate the government's warnings against what it calls illegal religious activities.