BEIJING // Shortly before sundown the forecourt of Beijing’s Niujie mosque starts to fill with people.
The mosque’s staff carry in platters of watermelon and large kettles full of Vimto and the congregation wanders in to leaf through the day’s Ramadan teaching materials.
At 7.38pm an electric bell sounds and the faithful approach two long trestle tables covered in sugary treats to recite the maghrib prayer and break their fast.
“It’s easy to observe Ramadan in China,” says Sha Yanfeng, a 35-year-old metro worker. “No one bothers us.”
Yet, the same is not true for all Chinese Muslims, especially after a series of deadly attacks that the Chinese government blames on separatists from the north-western region of Xinjinag, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.
Mr Sha and his mosque belong to the Hui community – a group of some 10 million Muslims who are descended from Persian and Arab traders who first came to China in the 7th century BC.
Of the 10 ethnic groups that practise Islam in China, the Hui, say experts, are given the most religious freedom.
At the other end of the spectrum is China’s second-largest Muslim community, the Uighurs – Turkic-speaking people who mainly live in Xinjiang.
There, mosques have been plastered with posters detailing “illegal religious practices” such as holding private Quranic study sessions and sending children to religious schools, and Uighur students and government employees were banned from observing the Ramadan fast.
“There is huge discrepancy in how China’s Muslim minorities are treated even though the law is the same throughout the county,” says Ma Haiyun, a professor of history at Maryland’s Frostburg University and an expert on minorities and Islam in China.
“The local government in Xinjiang targets Islam as symbol of Uighur identity. They know it is the only thing that can unite the Uighurs,” he adds.
So why are the two groups treated so differently?
Firstly, the Hui are now almost indistinguishable from the Han – China’s ethnic majority – aside from their clothes and religious practices.
Physically, they look almost the same and they speak Mandarin as their mother tongue, albeit peppered with the odd Persian or Arabic word or phrase.
Another reason is that the Hui have never shown any secessionist tendencies – partly because they were never concentrated in one area.
The Uighur on the other hand share little genetic overlap with Han Chinese and in many cases do not speak Mandarin.
Xinjiang’s historical relations with China have also been chequered – with the region sometimes comprising part of China, sometimes partly independent and sometimes ruled by other empires.
At least twice in the last century, chunks of Xinjiang broke away from Chinese rule.
All of this has made for an uneasy relationship between Beijing and Muslims in Xinjinag.
Many Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of restricting religious freedom and flooding Xinjiang with Han migrants who get preferential access to jobs and services.
“We are made to feel like criminals in our own home,” says a man from the desert city of Tupran, who wanted to be identified only as Ismail.
The Chinese government denies circumscribing Uighurs’ religious freedom, saying that the state protects “all normal religious activities” .
It is a line that Ma Tong, the imam at Niujie mosque, repeats when asked about the relative freedom the Hui enjoy.
He explains that when Muslims live in non-Islamic countries – China is officially an atheist state – some practices might bump up against local laws.
“The situation in China, or in any non-Islamic country in the world, is slightly different to that in Arabic countries where they have Islamic law. You have to behave according to the law of where you live,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Hui and other Muslim communities in China – the Kazakh, Kirgiz, Bao’an, Tatar, Salar, Dongxiang, Uzbek and Tajik – are also subject to observation and limitations.
“Strong restrictions are imposed on the movement of Muslim religious and intellectual leaders and on the dissemination of their ideas. The result is a relatively immature and fragmented religious culture, with limited capacity to foster considered critiques of contemporary social and political problems,” says Anthony Garnaut an expert on Chinese Islam at Oxford University.
Dr Garnaut and others say that efforts to exclude and suppress Uighur culture, as well as a recent crackdown on anti-state and illegal religious actives, could lead to an intensification of violence in Xinjiang.
If it does, the Hui at Niujie would have little sympathy for the perpetrators.
“Islam is a peaceful religion,” says Li Tou, a 35-year-old antiques dealer. “The people who carried out the attacks on Tiananmen and in Kunming are not Muslims.”