China investigates 32 for graft linked to Xinjiang Muslim pilgrimages

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is investigating 32 officials from the western region of Xinjiang for graft linked to pilgrimages by Muslims to Mecca, state media said on Thursday.

China's Uighur Muslims can usually only make pilgrimages to Mecca on government-organised trips.

The China Daily, the country's official English-language newspaper, said 14,000 such pilgrimages were organised in 2014 though some of the people who went to Mecca were "unqualified". It did not explain what that meant. "In addition to arranging pilgrimages for unqualified people, the investigated officials were found to have asked for and received bribes or neglected the inspection and management of pilgrimage work," the China Daily said, citing the anti-graft watchdog.

The officials, most of them from Xinjiang's Kizilsu prefecture, violated Communist Party discipline, were derelict of duty, abused their power for personal gain and made power-for-money deals, the newspaper said.

They included Kizilsu's former director of pilgrimage affairs, the head of the public security bureau and the mayor of the its most populous city, Artux.

Xinjiang is home to the mostly Muslim Uighur people. Hundreds of people have been killed there over the past two years in violence between Uighurs and ethnic majority Han Chinese that the government blames on Muslim separatists.

China is particularly concerned about Uighurs going abroad because of fear they will link up with Islamist militants.

Human rights groups say Uighurs trying to go abroad are fleeing persecution under harsh government policies and they criticise China for restricting the issuance of passports and curtailing Uighurs' foreign travel which some say fuels graft. "Strict quotas on the official organisation of pilgrimage groups leads to the buying of quotas," Mr Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for exiled World Uyghur Congress, said in an email.

Separately, state media reported on Wednesday that police in Shanghai had arrested 10 Turkish nationals suspected of supplying fake passports to Uighur "terrorist suspects".

The China Daily said in a separate article on Thursday that China would enhance information exchanges and cooperation with Turkey to "smash cross-border criminal gangs".