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Muslim Prayers Test Calm In China's Xinjiang

A child sits as older Uyghur Muslims pray at a mosque in Urumqi on July 9.

A child sits as older Uyghur Muslims pray at a mosque in Urumqi on July 9.

Some mosques in the China's riot-stricken city of Urumqi have been allowed to open for Friday prayers despite government closure orders.

Events in Urumqi, capital of the energy-rich northwestern region of Xinjiang, are seen as a test of the government's ability to maintain control in the wake of ethnic violence between Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese last week that left 156 people dead and more than 1,100 injured, according to the most conservative estimates.

The mosques were allowed to open after large crowds of worshippers gathered outside and demanded to be let in.

It was not immediately clear if they were opened because of a change of government policy or simply because security forces on the ground were concerned about further unrest if the large crowds were stopped from entering.

It also was not immediately clear how many mosques across the city of 2.3 million people were allowed to open.

Earlier, notices had been posted at mosques across the city -- the capital of China's northwestern province of Xinjiang -- saying they would be closed today. One Chinese official, who refused to give her name, said the closures were ordered for "the sake of public safety."

But at the White Mosque, one of the most popular places to worship in Urumqi's Uyghur neighborhood of Er Dao Qiao, the gates were opened today after hundreds of men argued with guards and demanded that they be allowed in for prayers.

Avoiding 'Incident'

One Uyghur policeman guarding the White Mosque, who would not give his name, said the guards decided to open the gates in order to avoid "an incident" with the crowd.

Later, some 500 Uyghurs could be seen outside of the White Mosque trying to join about 1,000 worshippers who had packed inside for prayers. Worshippers who emerged said the normal prayers had been shortened.

One middle-aged worshipper, a Uyghur man named Ahmedadji, said there would have been "a lot of unhappiness" if authorities had stopped the crowd from entering the White Mosque.

A closure notice also had been glued to the front gate of the Yang Hang Mosque, just a few blocks from the White Mosque. But that notice also was taken down and hundreds of men could be seen streaming inside, clutching their prayer mats.

A mosque frequented by Hui -- a Muslim group akin to Han Chinese -- also opened its doors after crowds of a few hundred worshippers began shouting.

But a cluster of Uyghurs outside of the Dong Kuruk Bridge Mosque said they were angry and disappointed it hadn't opened.

One man who was shut out of that mosque described the closures as "an insult." Referring to Chinese security forces stationed inside and posted in the minarets, he complained that worshippers were kept out while authorities let in "nonbelievers."

Meanwhile, a notice at the gateway of the nearby Guyuan Mosque said normal prayers were being suspended on July 10 "under instructions from superiors." That notice said anybody wishing to pray should "do so at home."

Bad Omen?

Analysts say China's ruling Communist Party may have ordered the mosque closures out of fear that large religious gatherings of ethnic Uyghurs could become a catalyst for more unrest after a week of ethnic strife.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Beijing was able to handle the crisis on its own and would not welcome interference by the international community:

"The Chinese government has taken decisive measures in accordance to law," Qin said. "This is an entirely internal affair of China. There are no reasons to ask the UN Security Council to discuss the matter. We hope the international community can see the truth clearly and understand and support China's efforts to safeguard the unity of our territory and the unity of China's ethnic groups and its social stability."

Xinjiang has long been a hotbed of ethnic tensions fostered by an economic gap between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture, and an influx of Han migrants who now comprise the majority in most of the region's key cities, including Urumqi.

But Qin said recent ethnic violence in Urumqi was elaborately planned and organized by "three vicious forces abroad," a term Chinese officials use to refer to religious extremists, separatists and terrorists:

"We have come to possess a great deal of evidence proving that these people received training from foreign terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and are inextricably linked with three vicious forces from abroad," Qin said. "Therefore, in this respect, we continue to urge relevant nations to strengthen cooperation to maintain peace together, and safeguard China's stability and peace."

Beijing has blamed the World Uyghur Congress and its president, Rebiya Kadeer, who lives in exile in the United States. But Kadeer rejected those accusations and says the root cause of the problems in Xinjiang are decades of repression under the "heavy-handed policies" of China's communist leadership.

"I hope there will be peace and restraint on both sides, and I also hope the Chinese government will stop offering one-sided reports deceiving the people there and will stop the heavy-handed crackdown and allow the people to speak for themselves, speak their minds and there will be peace and stability," Kadeer said. "The Chinese officials stated that they would execute a lot of people and imprison even more, but such behavior will actually escalate the situation in the region."

Uyghurs are a Turkic people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia. Most are Muslims.

Uyghurs currently comprise almost half of Xinjiang's 20 million people. Most of Urumqi's Han ethnic majority migrated to the region from other parts of China during the past two decades.

The Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan has said one of its nationals is among those seriously wounded in Urumchi during the past week, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The man is in serious but stable condition in a Chinese hospital, a ministry spokesman said.

compiled from agency reports