BEIJING (REUTERS) - The murder of a state-backed imam in China's Xinjiang region underscores an escalation in 18 months of violence and could be part of a bid by extremists to persuade moderate Muslim Uighurs to turn against Beijing's controlled current of Islam.
The targeting of Uighur officials or religious leaders has been an undercurrent of unrest for some 20 years in Xinjiang, where members of the Uighur minority are unhappy at official restrictions on their culture and religion.
Jume Tahir, the imam at China's largest mosque, Id Kah, in the Silk Road city of Kashgar, was killed on Wednesday by three suspected Islamist militants armed with knives. His predecessor narrowly survived a knife attack in the same spot in 1996.
But the attack contrasted with most recent violence aimed at the majority Han ethnic group and may be calculated to persuade Uighurs to fall in behind what China says are separatists seeking an independent state called East Turkestan.
"Part of the motivation is not simply to remove and put pressure on the state-backed officials, but also to make an impact on those who attend these mosques, the stability minded Uighurs," said Michael Clarke of Australia's Griffith University.
"In a sense, it is attempting to signal that this is a conflict that is now society wide. You have to now choose sides."
Tahir, 74, whose name is also spelled Juma Tayir, was a well-known supporter of Beijing authorities and had backed the government after security forces crushed 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. About 200 people died.
A figure who divided Uighur public opinion, he was killed days after police shot dead dozens of attackers brandishing knives in a district about 200 km away, according to the official Xinhua news agency. China has yet to give a full account of that incident.
State media reported the murder about 36 hours after witnesses described to Reuters the chaotic scene outside the mosque after morning prayers. Two attackers were later shot dead by police and the third was arrested.
All the attackers had Uighur names.
Tensions are running high in Xinjiang, after officials told Muslims to eschew religious customs during the fasting month of Ramadan, which rights groups saw as an bid to repress Uighurs.
China punishes the study of Islam outside the confines of tightly controlled state mosques.
As part of a crackdown on extremism, Xinjiang has offered rewards for tips on anyone offering independent study of the Koran. Students, officials and members of the officially atheist Communist Party are barred from mosques.
Henryk Szadziewski of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, says imams studying in Chinese state-approved Islamic institutes must adhere to a strict system.
Only a fraction of their time is devoted to the study of Islam, with most directed at political study sessions. Sermons are subject to approval and are monitored.
Szadziewski said tight state control on religion make it difficult to gauge how most Uighurs view pro-Beijing imams, but he said most wanted nothing to do with violence. "The vast majority of Uighurs do not perceive assassination as any kind of positive action for their community, whatever their view," he said in emailed responses to questions.
Government leaders say they are aware of a sustained effort needed to address violence in Xinjiang.
Zhang Chunxian, the region's Communist Party boss, said poverty-stricken southern Xinjiang, the epicentre of this week's unrest, was the key to the "chessboard".
"We must put southern Xinjiang as the highest priority in anti-terrorism and stability maintenance duties," Mr Zhang said in an article in party journal Qiushi released on Friday.
But so far, experts say, there is no indication that Beijing is addressing the issues of religious freedom, that, coupled with economic marginalisation of Uighurs and the influx of Han labourers, has contributed to the region's volatility.
The response to Tahir's murder, Szadziewski said, probably would be even greater scrutiny of religious practices. "Misunderstandings and insensitive behaviour on the part of state security can easily develop into incidents that perpetuate the cycle of violence."