BEIJING: Police in China’s far western region of Xinjiang have rescued 54 children from illegal preachers, state media said on Wednesday, in what an exiled rights group said was a violent raid on a school teaching the Holy Quran.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said 12 of the children received burns when “the suspects ignited a flammable device to resist capture” during the incident in the remote southern Xinjiang city of Hotan.
“Acting on tips from local residents, police raided an illegal religious preaching venue in the city, where 54 children were being held,” Xinhua cited an unidentified police spokesman as saying.
“Three suspects were seized during the operation, and three police officers were wounded,” the news agency said in a brief English-language report.
Xinjiang is home to the mainly Muslim Turkic-speaking Uighur people, many of whom chafe at Chinese government controls on their culture and religion.
A Germany-based Uighur exile group, the World Uyghur Congress, said police had used teargas to attack a school teaching children the Holy Quran.
“There was a fight, and the authorities used tear gas on the young students, causing injuries on both sides,” spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in emailed comments.
“The aim was to eradicate religious belief.”
He added that police had arrested 47 people, including 11 women, in a crackdown following the raid, accusing them of owning illegal publications and disturbing social stability.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the conflicting accounts or reach the government for comment.
Hotan, in the majority Uighur southern part of Xinjiang, has seen numerous violent incidents over the past few years.
The government, wary of instability and the threat to the Communist Party’s grip on power, often blames what it calls violent separatist groups and extremists in Xinjiang for attacks on police or other government targets.
It says they work with al Qaeda or Central Asian militants, though experts doubt the extent of those contacts.
Xinjiang is strategically vital to China and the government has shown no sign of loosening its grip on the region, which accounts for one-sixth of China’s land mass and holds rich deposits of oil and gas and borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia.