China makes it harder for its Muslim citizens to go to Mecca, or anywhere else
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — They left their village at a moment's notice, shedding their prayer caps and headscarves at the airport in favor of casual athletic wear, silently praying that they would not be prevented from leaving China.
The group of six travelers were Chinese Muslims, intent on completing the Hajj: a once-in-a-lifetime duty for Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, which this year took place between late June and early July.
"When we return to China, we may have our passports clipped or confiscated, but we will face whatever we have to when we return," said one of the three male travelers.
NPR kept in touch with this group of six pilgrims starting in May, as they set off from their village in northwestern China toward the holy city in Saudi Arabia. Their circuitous journey reflects the extraordinary means China is undertaking to surveil and stop its citizens from making the Hajj — as well as the equally resourceful ways believers circumvent them.
NPR is not using their names or naming their village to protect them from official scrutiny after returning to China.
Within China, authorities have severely restricted practicing religions, especially Christianity and Islam. In the region of Xinjiang, at least hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, a historically Muslim ethnic minority, have been detained or arrested since 2017. Elsewhere, across northwestern China, provincial authorities have demolished mosques or forcibly removed their Arabic-style domes, closed Islamic schools and surveilled religious leaders.
This year, as global travel has picked up in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese authorities are cutting off nearly all pathways abroad for Muslim believers, citing concerns that they may be radicalized abroad or encourage religious fervor once they return to China.
Public security officers were dispatched to domestic airports to screen outbound travelers headed to Islamic countries and tasked with phoning up and coercing pilgrims already abroad to turn back and go home, according to interviews with a dozen Chinese Muslims. Those found to have privately made the Hajj outside of state-authorized tours are detained or arrested upon returning to China.
"China wants to control you even when you are outside the country," one of the pilgrims said.
Getting a passport is the first challenge
The first challenge for prospective Hajj-goers is obtaining travel documents. China cut off issuing new passports during the coronavirus pandemic, but in practice, restrictions remain especially tough for the country's estimated 20 million to 30 million Muslims, about 1.5-2% of the total population.
In the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai, where the pilgrims live, authorities have stopped issuing new passports altogether to residents who are Uyghur or Hui, another primarily Muslim ethnic group, according to seven Muslim residents there.
These passport restrictions mimic controls long in place in China's western Xinjiang region, which started confiscating passports from ethnic Uyghur citizens in 2016, the year before authorities initiated a massive detention campaign targeting largely Uyghur communities.
The Qinghai passport restrictions began when the former party secretary of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, was reassigned to be a senior party official in Qinghai.
This year, in Qinghai province, those did get passports had to sign official letters promising that while traveling abroad they would not complete the Hajj, according to three Chinese Muslims who each signed such letters. A fourth Chinese Muslim said they also had to produce a school enrollment letter and bank statements showing they were traveling abroad for education, not to complete the Hajj.
The six pilgrims NPR kept in touch with were lucky; they managed to secure their travel documents three years earlier by applying through a passport office several hundred miles from Qinghai province.
Crackdown on private Hajj tours
Passports in hand, the group still needed someone to organize their travel and, critically, who could obtain the Hajj visas Saudi Arabia requires of all pilgrims. However, in the run-up to this year's pilgrimage, Chinese authorities were arresting private tour leaders.
One of those arrested was a tour leader named Ma Yanhu, who also writes online essays on scripture and Chinese religious policy under the pen name Tianfang. Originally trained as an Islamic theologian, Ma has led private Hajj tour groups for hundreds of Chinese Muslims a year for the last two decades.
In 2019, state security officials began investigating him from his home province of Ningxia over his Hajj organization activities. This April, he was arrested in the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou on charges of running an illegal business.
"Islam enjoys the protection of our country's constitution, and completing the Hajj is the most important of the Five Pillars of Islam," Ma hand wrote in an appeal letter seen by NPR. "My country's official policy is to manage religion according to the law, but in practice, many citizens experience restrictions over legal religious activities, including the Hajj."
China runs state-approved tours to Mecca, but that was not an option for the pilgrims NPR contacted. The waiting list for the limited number of Hajj spots Saudi Arabia allocates to Muslims in China is now at least five years long, said the pilgrims. Moreover, China forbids its public sector employees from completing the Hajj, regardless of their age. Employees risk losing their retirement pensions and other state-managed benefits if they go anyways.
Undeterred, the pilgrims decided to strike out on their own, keeping in touch online with dozens of acquaintances and other Hajj travelers to assess the likelihood of success.
The group was especially nervous because they had three elderly travelers with them. Up until last year, Saudi Arabia required all pilgrims to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and to be under the age of 65 because of pandemic health restrictions. Those age restrictions were lifted this year.
However, China's state-run Islamic Association, which organizes the country's approved Hajj delegations, only selected pilgrims below the age of 65, according to four people familiar with Hajj policy.
The Islamic Association and the government's religious affairs department did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.
"When we got word that several other pilgrims had made it out of the country, we resolved to make the Hajj together through our own means," said one of the pilgrims. The group of six left Qinghai the next day.
A long and winding road
The group did not fly directly to Saudi Arabia, because previous travelers told them that was a giveaway to Chinese security officers that they were Hajj pilgrims.
Instead, the group first booked tickets to the southern city of Guangzhou, a major international transit hub. As soon as they landed, police officers from their hometown called one of them on their mobile phone, inquiring why they were leaving Qinghai province and whether they were planning to make the Hajj. The group replied to the officers that they were traveling for work, then switched off their phones.
Panicked, the group decided to fly to central China instead, transferring through two more domestic airports before flying to Malaysia, a majority Muslim nation in Southeast Asia.
Every time they went through airport security check, they said they were careful to keep silent. They had heard from other pilgrims that Qinghai province security officers had been stationed at airports fanning out across China to pick out their regional accents.
Two other Chinese Muslims who traveled internationally during the Hajj last year told NPR they were stopped by police especially assigned to Chinese airports. When the officers checked their identification documents which listed them as Hui, an ethnic group that is historically Muslim, the travelers were taken aside for questioning about whether they were traveling for the Hajj.
To hide their faith, the group removed any veils and donned new athletic clothes they bought the day before. "I felt almost naked," said one of the older female travelers. She said she had never taken off her veil in public since girlhood.
One of the pilgrims was briefly stopped, because immigration officials noticed her travel documents listed her as ethnically Hui. She said she was leaving for a vacation, and they let her through.
After landing in Malaysia, the group immediately went to visit one of Kuala Lumpur's biggest mosques. There, surrounded by reminders of Islamic piety, the stress of the last week sunk in and collapsing at the thick prayer rugs under their feet, they began to weep.
From Malaysia, the group flew to Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia. But they knew they were not safe there either.
Even after leaving China, Hajj travelers continue to receive threatening phone calls from local police officers demanding they return immediately, according to three Chinese Muslims. The group of Qinghai pilgrims were discouraged to learn upon landing that four travelers from their hometown had been cowed into flying back to China from Riyadh after Chinese police officers threatened to punish their relatives.
While in Saudi Arabia, the group of six pilgrims agreed to take out the batteries from their Chinese smartphones, anxious their movements could be tracked through their devices by security officials in China or that they would receive even more threatening phone calls.
They fretted about having to find a private driver willing to sneak them into Mecca, the Saudi Arabian city where Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon and the pinnacle of the annual spiritual journey, because they lacked the official Hajj visa and passes needed to get them through checkpoints.
In June, they successfully completed the approximately two-week Hajj, finally circumambulating the Kaaba, a sacred, black, cubic building in Mecca. Now, they face the daunting prospect of returning home to whatever punitive consequences awaited them in Qinghai.
"We have to have faith that we will overcome each hurdle we encounter," one of the pilgrims said. "We do not have a plan. We take one step forward and then face the next step."
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