By Javier García
Kashgar/Urumqi, China, May 7 (EFE).- A muezzin calls for prayer during Ramadan from Kashgar’s Id Kah mosque, the largest in China, without using a loudspeaker, unlike other Muslim places, while about 50 devotees gather to pray, a small number for a city of more than 700,000 people.
The mosque, built in the 15th century and surrounded by gardens, can accommodate up to 20,000 people and is a symbol of Kashgar, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the legendary capital of southern Xinjiang, predominantly populated by the Uyghur ethnic minority.
The mosque’s imam, Juma Tahir, was stabbed to death by four Islamic extremists on July 30, 2014, outside the compound a few minutes after morning prayer, meeting the same fate as other imams, especially in southern Xinjiang.
Since 1990, imams have been appointed by the Chinese government, as have the priors of other religions in the country, which considers clerics to be “religious professionals.”
That has led Uyghur imams, who supported government policies, to be considered “heretics” by Islamist radicals and become targets of their attacks.
The son of the murdered imam, Mamat Juma, 51, who adopted his father’s name as his surname, succeeded him as the mosque’s head and is the current iman of Id Kah.
He said attendance at the iconic mosque has been considerably lower in recent times.
“Ten years ago, between 4,000-5,000 people came for Friday prayer, and in Ramadan it reached 7,000. Now we have between 800 and 900 on Fridays,” he said.
Attendance at the daily obligatory prayers observed five times a day is even lower, between 400-500 during normal times.
Kashgar has among the highest Uyghur population (more than 70 percent) in the region although Mamat said “not all Uyghurs are Muslims” and that Muslims account for only 30-40 percent.
“It’s true that there are now fewer people fasting during Ramadan and praying. That is mainly because people’s lifestyles are changing, people are rushing to go to work and do other things,” he said.
The imam said the absence of loudspeakers for the muezzin, which makes his voice barely audible beyond the square surrounding Id Kah – is so as ” to not disturb the lives of the non-Muslim population living nearby.”
He said there are 150 mosques in Kashgar and that “in his entire life” he has not seen “any of those mosques demolished or transformed into anything else,” nor “any incident in which religious practice has been violated.”
“Religious extremists used to visit every mosque. My father was murdered for no reason, they killed people under the pretext of religion,” he said.
Since then, they have focused on “popularizing the correct interpretation of the Qur’an and Islam among believers” after which there have been no more violent incidents, he added.
He also claims that Id Kah, which is open throughout the day, has never been closed, except once in 1976 during the cultural revolution and eight days last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Omar Abdel Abdullah, a 24-year-old Uyghur, is studying religion at the massive Xinjiang Islamic Institute, set up in 1987.
Since 2017, the institute has been at new facilities opened by the regional government on the outskirts of Urumqi, the region’s capital.
Spread over an area of 100,000 square meters, the campus has a bookstore, sports fields, gymnasium, prayer rooms and an impressive mosque, as well as dozens of classrooms and dormitories for students.