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Internal religious strife mars China's record

By Mary Kwang, The Straits Times, 20 December 2000

In recent fatal clashes, five Muslims are killed and over 40 injured. But a govt officer says the issue has been exaggerated by the Western media

BEIJING - The three-month-old religious conflict in eastern Shandong province and neighbouring Hebei province is a dark blot on China's record of generally harmonious relations between the majority Han Chinese and religious minorities.

During the fatal clashes which escalated last week, five Muslims were shot dead and more than 40 injured.

In China's first official comment yesterday on the incident, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhang Qiyue said it was a minor issue that had been exaggerated by the Western media.

If there is any ethnic strife or a minor issue that triggered some other issues, perhaps they may exist, but the international media should not play up this kind of question, she said.

According to Mr Ma Jinlian, a Hui or Chinese Muslim, his community and the Han Chinese enjoy good ties although the two groups seldom discuss religious issues because of a lack of interest.

He said that most rows involving religious groups and the Han Chinese were put down quickly by officials before they got out of hand.

Despite the general harmony among the groups, the Han Chinese carry out the occasional insensitive act or make certain remarks which infuriate the Muslims.

The most recent such incident in Beijing took place last month during the city authorities' programme to renew Niu Street, a Muslim enclave in the capital where a famous mosque is sited.

Mr Ma said: A Han Chinese housing official said then: The relocation exercise is good because it would stop those wearing white caps from making trouble.

The white caps refer to Muslims who wear such headgear.

In March, when a Guangzhou newspaper published a picture of the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, in Mecca next to an unrelated photograph of a cloned pig, angering the Muslims, the authorities took action against the editor and the newspaper published an apology.

In 1993, a children's book that included a drawing of a pig - seen as unclean by the Muslims - in front of a Muslim kneeling in prayer triggered protests across north-western China.

The government banned the book.

The Chinese Constitution provides for freedom of religion. There are laws to ensure that all languages, customs and religious beliefs are respected.

The laws also bar discrimination in employment or education on grounds of religion. There are also rules banning discriminatory content against any ethnic or religious group.

There are about 20 million Muslims in the country, comprising 1.4 per cent of the total population.

According to government data, there are 35,000 Islamic places of worship, and more than 45,000 imams (religious leaders) nationwide.

The Muslims in China, found throughout the country from Xinjiang to Shaanxi to Shandong, are seen as belonging largely to two groups.

These are the Central Asian Muslims, such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and the Hui Muslims who are descendants of Arab and Persian traders and who have become assimilated over the centuries with the Hans.

Except for their religion, the Huis are indistinguishable from the Hans.

Separatists from the Muslim Uighur group have been waging a campaign of bombings and assassinations in Xinjiang, but clashes with Hui Muslims are rare.

Mr Ma said that religious fervour had increased in China.

After Chairman Mao Zedong, there is a void in peoples minds. This is filled by religion.