File photo: Koran, the holy book of Islam.
Police rescued 54 children from an illegal Koran teaching center in Hotan in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region yesterday, during a raid in which 17 people were injured by suspects setting off explosives that caused a fire.
A total of 12 children suffered mild burns, while three police officers and two of the three suspects arrested were also injured, local authorities said yesterday.
At around 2 am yesterday, police in Hotan, an oasis town in southern Xinjiang's Tarim Basin, received a tipoff from a parent whose child was held at the Koran teaching center.
When police arrived at the scene, the suspects lit home-made explosives that sparked a fire, Hou Hanmin, chief of the regional information office, told the Global Times yesterday.
The raided center was located on the fifth floor of a six-storey residential building. Fire destroyed much of the floor, said a local resident who works a block away from the building.
But the resident, who requested anonymity, told the Global Times she had no idea about the Koran classes or congregation of children in the building.
Police said the rescued children have been reunited with their families, adding that the case is still under investigation.
Hou said the children, aged between 6 and 10, were previously not allowed to meet with their parents.
"Some of the children were abducted or lured from the streets, while others may have been sent there by their parents," said Hou.
But when these parents wanted to pull their children out of the school, the suspects refused. "That's why parents called the police," said Hou.
It is not clear how long the suspects had been teaching the Koran at the center.
Illegal religious activities held in unregistered places and carried out by unauthorized preachers are a major target of a crackdown in Xinjiang.
Earlier this week, local authorities announced that a 12-year-old boy was beaten to death by his fellow "classmates" at an illegal Koran teaching center in Korla, central Xinjiang.
The boy was sent there by his uncle to learn the sacred Islamic text. On May 17, the "teacher" instructed other students to beat the boy because he could not finish reciting scriptures. The boy died three days later on the way to a hospital, the Korla local government said on its website.
Hou said many children were harmed at illegal schools in Xinjiang.
Last December, a 4-year-old girl was raped at such a center in Urumqi. In February, a 7-year-old boy was tied up against a radiator and suffered burns to his back, said Hou.
"We respect people's religious beliefs, but illegal teachings are strictly prohibited and children especially shouldn't be involved in such activities," said Hou.
Although the Law on Protection of Minors does not prohibit children from religious practices, local regulations related to the law in Xinjiang stipulate that parents should not allow minors to engage in religious activities, nor should any organization or individual force minors to practice their religion.
Illegal Koran teaching centers have specifically recruited women and children in recent years, Li Jiansheng, a professor at the School of Economics and Law at Xinjiang Normal University, wrote in the Tribune of Social Sciences in Xinjiang.
He said that such centers are vulnerable to manipulation by outside forces and many underground Koran teaching centers are linked to separatists and extremists.