China punishes officials for abuses in arranging pilgrimages

AP News
Posted: Jan 15, 2015 5:12 AM

BEIJING (AP) — Thirty-two officials in far-western China have been punished over alleged bribe-taking, nepotism or other wrongdoing in the choosing of people for over-subscribed Muslim pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, a Communist Party commission and a state newspaper said.

China's Uighur Muslims, native to the region of Xinjiang where bloody ethnic violence rages despite a security crackdown, are allowed to make such pilgrimages only on government-authorized trips.

The party and government officials accused of taking advantage of their positions in selecting people for the trips included mayors and a local police chief, the Xinjiang Disciplinary Commission said in an online statement Wednesday.

It said the 32, mostly from Kizilsu prefecture near the border with Kyrgyzstan, had been punished for violating party discipline, misuse of power, negligence and seeking benefits. Six of them were fired from their posts and expelled from the party and will be criminally investigated.

The state-run China Daily newspaper said on its website Thursday that the officials arranged pilgrimages for "unqualified people" and that some had taken bribes. Some officials changed lists to reduce waiting times for relatives, said the report, which cited unnamed authorities.

There are officially about 22 million Muslims in China. Last year, about 14,000 Chinese pilgrims went to Mecca on a government-organized trip, and there was a long waiting list of others hoping to make the journey, the China Daily said.

"China strictly forbids Uighurs to make unauthorized pilgrimages," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based advocacy group World Uyghur Congress, said in an emailed statement. "The strict quotas on the official organization of pilgrimage groups have brought about the phenomenon of buying a place."

Beijing is concerned about Uighurs going abroad amid violence linked to Xinjiang that has killed about 400 people within the past two years, which it blames on radical separatists with foreign ties.

On Wednesday, a state newspaper reported that police detained nine Uighurs terror suspects for allegedly trying to leave China on altered Turkish passports, along with 10 Turks.