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Cablegate: Tibet: Lhasa Muslims' Resurging Identity, Wary Relations

DE RUEHCN #0032/01 0351211
O 041211Z FEB 10




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. A) 09 CHENGDU 228; B) 09 CHENGDU 257; C) 09 CHENGDU 288;
B. D) 09 CHENGDU 289; E) CHENGDU 16; F) CHENGDU 22;

CHENGDU 00000032 001.2 OF 004

1. (SBU) This cable is Sensitive But Unclassified. Not for
Internet distribution.

2. (SBU) Summary. Lhasa's small but energetic community of
Muslims, both ethnic Tibetan and from other regions of China, is
closely monitored by the government of the Tibet Autonomous
Region (TAR), CG's recent visits suggest. A resurging interest
in Islam among Tibet's Muslims appears to have coincided with
Beijing's more relaxed policies toward religions in general in
the 1980s and 90s. The TAR government has refused to allow new
mosques to open. Parents have been home schooling their
children in the Koran; there is an increasingly strong
self-identification of young Muslims in Tibet with their
religion. Imams in Lhasa receive their theological training
primarily in Nepal and India's Kashmir region, and maintain ties
to friends and family members there, some of whom are Tibetan
exiles. End Summary.

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3. (U) Introduction: As part of an on-going effort to gauge the
state of religious freedom in southwest China, CG visited the
two largest mosques in Lhasa in October, and returned to one of
the two mosques during an early February stay in the Tibetan
capital. Reftels reported on Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, and
Protestant and Catholic churches in Sichuan and Yunnan. Septels
will also report on meetings with Christians and Muslims in
Yunnan, Guizhou, and Chongqing.

--------------------------------------------- -------

I. Lhasa's "Big Mosque":

Imam Nervous About Religious Affairs Bureau Official

--------------------------------------------- -------

4. (SBU) During an impromptu ,October 22 visit to Lhasa's
largest mosque, CG first introduced himself to "Abdul," who
happened to be one of the TAR government's Religious Affairs
Bureau (RAB) officials, as well as a member of the mosque's
Democratic Management Committee (DMC, or "minjianhui"). The RAB
official then introduced CG to the mosque's head Imam, "Yakob."

5. (SBU) Imam Yakob explained that there were 4-5000 Muslims in
Lhasa, and said that the mosque freely enjoyed interaction with
Muslims from other regions of China. The Imam said that he had
relatives living in Kashmir, India; Pakistan; Nepal; and Saudi
Arabia, as well as a brother in Lhasa who had studied in the
United Arab Emirates. Yakob, who appeared to be nervous but
friendly, explained that the mosque's DMC only concerned itself
with "administration," and "left religion to the Imams." He
expressed support for the TAR government's patriotic education
of the mosque's Imams because "We are all Chinese, and the
country needs citizens that love it." Government officials come
"to see if the mosque is OK, and ask how they can help," he
explained. Tibetan Muslims are a (religious) minority within a
minority (ethnic Tibetans as part of China), Yakob said,
recalling that in the past there had been tensions between
Tibetan Muslims and Buddhists. For this reason, the Imam
explained, Muslims in Lhasa try hard to maintain cordial
relations with Buddhist leaders.

6. (SBU) When CG asked whether there were any limits on the
number of Muslims in his mosque who could make the pilgrimage
(the "hajj") to Mecca, Yakob replied bluntly that "I can't say
anything on that." (Note: At one point, the Imam called Abdul,
the RAB official, into the semi-private room to join CG --
perhaps to assure the official that he was not criticizing the
TAR government. Abdul listened briefly, and then left the room.
Shortly thereafter, mid-day prayers were about to start, and
CG saw dozens of white capped Muslim men enter the mosque just
as he left it. End Note.)

CHENGDU 00000032 002.2 OF 004


II. October Visit to Second Lhasa Mosque:

Brief Encounter With Young Imam


7. (SBU) In October, CG also briefly visited a second, smaller
mosque in Lhasa's old town not far from the main mosque. There,
CG met Azizula, a 32-year old Imam whose father was also an Imam
at the mosque. Azizula explained that he had studied Arabic and
the Koran in Kashmir for 14 years in a town "one-day train ride
from the border (with China)." Azizula estimated that, over the
years, as many as 90 members of his mosque had applied to go on
the hajj, but that only 20 had been allowed to go. The cost of
traveling to Mecca is expensive: 40,000 RMB (5900 USD), the Imam

8. (SBU) When CG asked a question about the mosque's relations
with the TAR government, Imam Azizula's father-in-law called out
from the adjacent kitchen that he should not answer the
question. Nevertheless, Azizula offered to allow CG to return
that Friday to meet the DMC and ask them questions directly.
Before CG departed, Azizula explained that the DMC had eight
members, five of who were from the government, and three from
the mosque, including its senior imams. (Note: Because of a
tight schedule, CG was not able to meet the DMC in October, but
returned in February. End Note.)

--------------------------------------------- -----------------

III. Return Engagement: A Senior Imam (Mostly) Speaks His Mind

--------------------------------------------- ----------------

9. (SBU) During a second visit to the smaller mosque on February
1, CG met Imam Hamid Dulla, who appeared to be in his 40s or
50s. Imam Dulla provided somewhat higher estimates of Lhasa's
Muslim community than had Imam Yakob: 4-5000 ethnic Tibetan
Muslims, and 2-3000 Muslims from other regions of China,
including from the Huizu ethnic minority, as well as non-Hui
Muslims from Gansu and Qinghai. Dulla explained that Lhasa had
five mosques: the so-called "Big Mosque of Lhasa" (also visited
by CG), his "Small Mosque of Lhasa," and three other mosques
that were even smaller than his "Small Mosque." About 10-15
faithful visit his mosque daily, except for Friday, when
approximately 600 attend prayers.

Government Refusing to Allow New Mosques


10. (SBU) Dulla's mosque was repaired, expanded, and reopened in
1999 after receiving government permission and financial aid to
do so, he said. However, the TAR government will not allow
additional mosques to open in Lhasa, the Imam stated
categorically. The only reason that this mosque was allowed to
open, he explained, was because it had been an existing mosque
with over 400 years of history (before being closed by the PRC
government, probably either after the Dalai Lama and many
Tibetan Muslims fled in 1959, or during the Cultural Revolution
in the 1960s). (Comment: Similarly, Protestant pastors have
told us that most current church buildings in Sichuan are those
that reopened in recent years. While some new church buildings
are being approved, the process can be difficult depending on
the locality. End Comment.)

11. (SBU) The mosque has not established close relations with
mosques outside of Tibet, or with Muslims abroad, Dulla stated.
Some foreign Muslims visiting Lhasa, e.g. from Pakistan, are
surprised to learn that there are mosques there, and
occasionally donate money. When the mosque was being rebuilt

CHENGDU 00000032 003.2 OF 004

and expanded in the 1990s, many of Imam Dulla's relatives in
Lhadak, Kashmir provided donations. (Note: Many of the Tibetan
Muslims who fled to India with the Dalai Lama in 1959 settled
with him in Dharamshalla, Himachal Pradesh, or in Kashmir. Imam
Dulla's relatives may be among these exiles. End Note.)

Koranic Instruction of Faithful:

Informal and Mainly in Tibetan; Imams Mainly Study in Nepal

--------------------------------------------- -------------

12. (SBU) Dulla's mosque has eight Imams, two of whom are
recognized by the RAB and have received an "Imam certificates"
(ahengzheng). The mosque does not have a school to teach Arabic
or the Koran. When asked why, Dulla explained that most
member-parents of the mosque feel that if their children spent
their time learning Arabic, they would have less time to study
Chinese, and therefore less opportunity to find a good job.

13. (SBU) Comment: Given that Arabic and Chinese are both
challenging languages, the Imam's explanation may be partly
accurate. However, but we also believe the TAR government is
nervous about allowing Koranic schools. Virtually all of
mosques in Shadian, Yunnan that we visited in January had
schools (septel). This small mosque in Lhasa had an unusually
large numbers of Imams who could teach -- eight -- yet there was
no school attached to the mosque. It is possible that the
Imams, in fact, provide instruction on the Koran beyond prayer
services, but do so informally. End Comment.

14. (SBU) Dulla explained that, for eight years, he had studied
Arabic in Nepal, where there were several "Arabic" (Koranic)
schools. The mosque's seven other imams also studied in Nepal.
If talented, he said, some students at Koranic schools in Nepal
are invited to continue their studies in Saudi Arabia (and
presumably supported financially by the Saudi government or some
other Islamic organization there).

Government: Close Monitoring and Guidance

to Mosque; Quotas on Muslims Going to Mecca


15. (SBU) Dulla explained that the mosque's DMC consisted of
seven members, three of whom were retired cadres, and two of
whom were from the RAB. Every week, two RAB officials also
observe Friday prayers. Disingenuously, the Imam expressed
support for the presence of these RAB officials, which he said
was necessary so that the Government could "monitor" the mosque.
"One never knows when security incidents could occur that would
threaten social stability," he explained, adding that after the
March 2008 unrest by Buddhist Tibetans, some people tried to
attack the mosque.

16. (SBU) The mosque also receives regular "guidance" from the
TAR government regarding e.g. how to promote social stability,
ethnic solidarity, and religious harmony. Finally, RAB
officials periodically carry out special "official" education
campaigns, e.g. before big festivals. (Note: CG has visited
about a dozen Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, all but the
smallest of which also had DMCs. With two active and three
retired government officials out of eight DMC committee members,
this mosque had the highest ratio of government official per
religious leader of any DMC so far. End Note.)

17. (SBU) The Chinese government, through its China Islamic
Association in Beijing, grants each mosque in China a quota of
how many of their members can make the pilgrimage (hajj) to
Mecca. For Lhasa's "Small Mosque," only two members per year
can go, although this can change from year to year. Imam Dulla

CHENGDU 00000032 004.2 OF 004

stated that, every year, 50-60 of his members wished to make the
hajj. When asked why the Chinese government did not allow many
more than two to go to Mecca every year, however, he stated that
very few of these members actually had enough money to do so.

Increasing Self-Identification with Islam

by Tibetan Muslims, Especially Youth


18. (SBU) Imam Dulla explained that he was born after the 1950s,
and had little knowledge of what the Tibetan Muslim community
was like before the Chinese took control of Tibet. He felt,
however, the quality of religious education that Tibetans Imams
receive now is better than in the 1950s, and that the number of
Tibetan Muslims now was greater than before. Dulla also felt
that Muslim youth in Tibet had a much stronger
self-identification as Muslims now than 10-20 years earlier.
This in part reflected the fact that many Tibetan Muslim parents
had been providing their children with better home instruction
about the Koran. The Imam explained that most Tibetan Muslims
study the Koran in Tibetan, those who can't read Tibetan mainly
study it in Chinese, and the relatively few who read Arabic do
so in that language. The Imam also felt that the parents had an
increasingly stronger self-identification as Muslims, which in
turn was made possible in part because of more relaxed policies
toward religion by the PRC government in recent years.

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