Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are severely restricting the Islamic tradition of circumcision, either by delinking its religious significance or banning it outright, according to officials.
A member of the Uyghur diaspora living in Europe recently informed RFA’s Uyghur Service that Memet Ibrahim—a resident of his hometown Alaqagha, in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Kuchar (Kuche) county—was placed in an internment camp during the week of Jan. 12 because he had his six-year-old son circumcised.
Circumcisions are a major life-cycle event for Muslim boys, usually between the ages of six and eight, that include a ceremony and reception similar to that of a wedding, with family, friends and neighbors invited to celebrate the event.
According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, Ibrahim had his son’s circumcision performed and celebrated not as part of a traditionally large community event, but rather in a small, private ceremony with a few family members present.
Nonetheless, he said, the family was unable to escape the watchful eyes of the village cadres, and Ibrahim was later detained in one of the vast network of camps in which authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of “religious extremism” and “separatism” since early 2017.
RFA spoke with an officer at the Kuchar County Police Department who said he was unaware of Ibrahim’s situation or whether authorities had received any directives restricting the practice of circumcision.
However, in the process of investigating the claim, RFA was able to obtain information from other government offices around the XUAR suggesting that circumcision in the region has been heavily restricted, if not outright prohibited.
Religious rites ‘prohibited’
A “stability” officer in Suydung (Shuiding) township, in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture’s Qorghas (Huocheng) county, told RFA that one of the points of education she and her colleagues give to residents is that they should not take part in religious circumcisions.
According to the woman, once they reach the age for circumcision, boys are taken to a designated hospital in nearby Ghulja (Yining) city, where the operation is performed. Family gatherings, prayers, and neighborhood celebrations, all part of the religious and social fabric, are reportedly prohibited on the day of the circumcision.
“You are supposed to have it done at government-sanctioned hospitals,” she said. “It is prohibited to do the ritual at home with religious rites.”
The officer said authorities have even put heavy restrictions on visits to those young boys who have been circumcised in government-approved hospitals.
Would-be visitors to their hospital rooms are required to first register themselves with the neighborhood community center. If there are more than 10 visitors to a single child, the parents will be punished, perhaps even with detention in a camp or other center.
“They told us if relatives come, the number should not exceed 10, and we should report it to the government,” she said.
“We were told that if there are visitors to see the child, we should register them, otherwise there will be a problem … that they will be sent for ‘re-education.’”
A civil servant in the seat of Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture confirmed that religious life-cycle ceremonies, including circumcisions and weddings, are also heavily restricted in her region of the XUAR.
When asked whether such events can be performed under the guidance of an akhun, or Muslim officiant, she confirmed that doing so “is not allowed” in Kashgar.
Other restrictions on rites
Earlier reporting by RFA has confirmed that religious wedding rites, nikah, have been heavily restricted in parts of Kashgar for at least the past two years.
Historically, Uyghur couples have performed nikah on the morning of their wedding, gathering with their immediate families, as well as their best man and maid of honor, in the presence of an akhun. Multiple wedding receptions—complete with food, dancing, and merriment, and attended by extended family and members of the couple’s social circle—typically follows during the same afternoon and evening, or over the course of subsequent days.
But sources told RFA in August last year that after the internment campaign began in 2017, authorities began pushing couples to wed solely by obtaining an official marriage license and without nikah, which they identified as a sign of “religious extremism.”
Earlier investigations by RFA have shown that other religiously inflected practices, including wearing beards and various styles of dress—such as long tunics for women—have been heavily restricted by authorities in the XUAR over the past several years.
In 2015 and 2016, regional authorities even restricted the giving of zakat, or alms—the act of which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam. Restrictions on almsgiving have effectively prevented Uyghurs from being able to provide financial and social support to one another.
Reports of restrictions on circumcision and nikah provide the latest examples of what observers say is a bid by authorities to separate Uyghurs from even the most mundane expressions of religious practice and belief.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.