BEIJING – China said Thursday that a leading pro-government Muslim cleric in the volatile northwestern territory of Xinjiang was murdered, and police killed two suspects and captured another.
The state media reports were the first official confirmation of the murder of Jume Tahir after dawn prayers on Wednesday, the latest in a string of increasingly violent and brazen acts targeting government supporters and institutions.
Tahir, 74, had led the 600-year-old Id Kah mosque in the city of Kashgar since 2003 and was a strong supporter of government policy on Islam that critics say imposes harsh restrictions on Muslims.
Violence has sharply increased over recent months in Xinjiang, where radicals among the native Turkic Muslim Uighur minority have pursued a violent campaign to overthrow Chinese rule.
On Monday, the government said militants armed with knives and axes killed or injured dozens of people in Shache county near Kashgar.
Official reports said police killed dozens of the assailants, who reportedly first attacked police and government offices before turning on civilians. More details haven’t been released and the precise death toll remains unknown, although China called the incident a “premeditated terror attack.”
If dozens were indeed killed, it would be the bloodiest single instance of violence since ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009 left nearly 200 dead, according to the government. It’s not clear what sparked Monday’s incident, although activists abroad have suggested the mob was angered by restrictions on religious observance during the holy month of Ramadan that ended this week and the killing of a family of five by police searching homes.
Neither Tahir’s murder nor Monday’s violence could be independently verified and it wasn’t clear if the two incidents were related. Officials reached by phone refused to comment, and shopkeepers, hotel clerks and others in the city said they couldn’t discuss the matter for fear of trouble with the authorities. The government routinely prevents foreign journalists from working freely in Xinjiang.
Tahir’s high-profile support for the government — the report referred to him as a “patriotic religious personage” — and his criticism of violence in Xinjiang likely made him a target of the militants, whom the government says have ties to overseas Islamic terror groups.
The official reports identified the three suspects by their Uighur names as Turghun Tursun, Memetjan Remutillan and Nurmemet Abidilimit. They said after the suspects killed Tahir, they were chased down by police at noon on Wednesday and attempted to resist arrest with knives and axes. The reports didn’t say which of the three were killed.
Tahir’s Id Kah mosque is China’s largest, regularly attracting 10,000 worshippers to Friday prayers. In addition to serving as its imam, he was also vice president of the Chinese Islamic Association and a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature.
Tahir was frequently quoted in state media echoing government statements that Xinjiang was free of ethnic tensions and that “hostile forces in and outside China” were responsible for stirring up trouble.
“The people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are enjoying more and more rights and interests economically or politically,” he told state television during the 2010 session of the congress.
Tahir was seen as backing bans on the wearing of beards and headscarves by young Uighurs, as well as restrictions on mosque attendance and fasting.
Such heavy-handed regulation has fueled resentment among Uighurs, as well as a strong sense that the economic benefits of development in the resource-rich region are flowing mainly to migrants from China’s dominant Han majority who have flooded into the region in recent decades.
While some of the recent violent attacks have shown an increased level of sophistication and planning, most have relied on crude weaponry such as swords, bombs and homemade explosives.