A 74-year-old imam who had angered many Muslims because of his support for the Chinese Communist Party was stabbed to death outside the main mosque in Kasghar on Wednesday, according to multiple sources.
The killing of Juma Tahir, who served as a deputy of the National People's Congress, came amid an alarming surge in violence during the festival that ends the holy month of Ramadan.
Earlier this week, Chinese police shot and killed "dozens of Uighurs" who state media said had attacked government facilities with knives and axes in Yarkand, also known as Shache, 120 miles south of Kashgar in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Tahir was killed about 6.30 a.m. Wednesday outside the Id Kah mosque, one of the largest in China, where he had led morning prayers for the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
"He was assassinated. He was killed," said a man at the Kashgar Islamic Assn., who identified himself as deputy director but did not give his name. "You will have to wait for the official press release from the government" for more information, he said. Tahir was the head of the association.
Radio Free Asia said that owners of small shops lining the main square around the mosque had seen the body, but not the stabbing.
"I saw the body lying in front of the Id Kah mosque, and when I asked one of those leaving the scene about the commotion and the police presence, he said the body was that of Juma Tahir," a shopkeeper told the news service.
A small prayer service and ritual washing of the body took place inside the mosque within hours of the killing, according to a witness who did not wish to be named. In late afternoon, authorities held a hasty burial, the funeral cortege including many government vehicles and heavily guarded by Chinese military and police.
"I saw many cars with white military plates and black Audis with government plates. It was clear that this was the burial of somebody very important," said a witness, who asked not to be named.
Fearing more violence, Chinese authorities imposed virtual martial law in the Kashgar area, barricading streets around the mosque and leading in and out of the city, and suspending Internet service and text messaging to prevent word of the killing from spreading. The barricades were lifted by Wednesday evening, according to residents.
Tahir became active in resurrecting the Islamic community in Kashgar in the 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese Communist Party lifted prohibitions against religion and rebuilt mosques that had been demolished.
According to an official profile, Tahir served as a member of the National People's Congress from 2008 to 2013, although he spoke no Chinese, only Uighur.
The Id Kah mosque, which dominates the main square of Kashgar, is one of the most popular tourist sites in Xinjiang. It was named in May by a government agency as one of the 66 most "harmonious mosques" in China. Tahir was frequently quoted by state media praising the Chinese Communist Party and deploring terrorism.
"Some hostile forces in and outside China have made use of religion to carry out penetration, sabotage and secessionist activities in Xinjiang, and they also sowed discord between religious people and non-religious people. So we must keep vigilance," Tahir was quoted as telling China Daily in 2010. "Only with ethnic solidarity and social stability can Xinjiang develop more rapidly and become more prosperous."
But many Uighurs in Kashgar resented Islamic clerics who collaborated with the Communist Party. During Tahir's tenure as head of the Kashgar Islamic Assn., the party tightened regulations on religious practice, banning civil servants, teachers and students from fasting during Ramadan, and detaining women who veiled their faces.
"The mosques in many cities have become places where the government monitors people's religious activity, and those in charge of the mosques have to cooperate," said Dilxat Rexit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress based in Sweden.
Tahir is not the first Islamic official to fall victim to violence in the last year. Abdurehim Damaolla, 74, deputy chairman of the Turpan government-affiliated Islamic Assn., was stabbed to death outside his home last August after locals accused him of helping police arrest participants in a riot.
In May, Tursun Qadir, the principal of a middle school in Kucha, was beaten up by a mob after penalizing female students for covering their heads.