May 6, 2004
Faith Sprouts in Arid Soil of China

MAJIAZHUANG, China - They gathered under a blazing midday sun, raptly observing as four men in skullcaps held down the bull in preparation for its sacrifice. Little girls stood wide-eyed, while boys tried to appear unfazed, and the wizened grandmothers who, having seen such things countless times, were abuzz instead about the rare appearance of foreigners in their hamlet.

The guest of honor, the sheik, or spiritual leader for a large Muslim population concentrated here in the arid, landlocked region of Ningxia, glanced anxiously at his watch, hoping the butcher would arrive so that he could get on with his busy schedule.

The butcher arrived, and within minutes his deed was done, his red blade thrust into the soil as the bull's life drained into a shallow pit. The sacrifice of a sheep followed. Moments later, as all were seated for a feast in memory of an elder who had died, the sheik whispered to a visitor: "Don't eat too much. There will be a feast in the next village, too."

Asked as he piled into his chauffeur-driven, four-wheel-drive vehicle if he presided at ceremonies like this every weekend, the 39-year-old Muslim leader who bears the title sheik, but prefers to go by his name, Hong Yang, issued a world-weary sigh. "I do it every day," he said. Then he drove off.

As the leader of the Kufiya sect, more than a million strong, Mr. Hong is responsible for adjudicating local disputes, charity, patronage and, of course, matters of the faith. Communist ideology holds that religion would wither, but as a precaution, under Mao's rule it was actively suppressed.

These days, signs of religious revival abound in China, perhaps nowhere more than among the country's largest Muslim minority, the Hui, who are historically centered in this area of north-central China, where Persians and Arabs migrated in the seventh century, intermarrying with local populations. But the limits on Islam and other faiths enforced by the government remain strict and carefully observed.

Reliable religious data is hard to come by in China, but the country's estimated 20 million Muslims are often said to constitute the second-largest religious community, after Buddhists, who may number as many as 100 million. Christians of various denominations are also believed to number over 10 million, and adherents of all of these faiths are widely believed to be growing.

"It used to be that religious freedom only existed on paper, but now it is flowing into our daily lives," said Mr. Hong, who received a visitor a stone's throw from the towering main mosque in nearby Hong Gangzi. "We are allowed to say whatever we want to, as long as we respect the party.'' Mr. Hong's statement had the ring of a disclaimer, something prudent to say in a country where the government decides who is and who is not allowed to be a religious leader and even where people may gather to worship. Mr. Hong, a graduate of Beijing University who studied theology in Pakistan, is clearly on the approved list, unlike many ethnic Uighur Muslims in the country's far west, who are viewed as dangerous separatists. His particular sect of Sufi Islam, run by his father and grandfather before him, has a long history of ups and downs. "In the 1950's, the Hui Muslim leaders were accused of landlordism, and persecuted," said Dru Gladney, a China specialist at the University of Hawaii who has written extensively on Islam. "In the capitalist era, they have been given freer rein, but lead a precarious existence because the state can go after them at any time. This actually makes them very useful to the government, because they are always anxious to prove their loyalty to Beijing."

Even for someone like Mr. Hong who goes along with the system, however, faith very quickly bumps up against the limits of what the government will allow. Islam, for example, commands its followers to spread the religion, but China strictly prohibits proselytizing.

"We can teach children very basic things about the religion in terms of culture," he said. "From primary school to high school we are not allowed to teach religion. We feel helpless to change this because these are the nation's rules. But God grants spirituality, and for those who are fortunate enough it is felt in one's heart.

"Our faith may sometimes seem reduced to a matter of customs, but that is because we must survive in this system."

Mr. Hong said the government's attitude toward religion had gradually become more tolerant in recent years. "Not long ago, when party leaders used to open meetings about religion, they would begin with slogans about religion being the opium of the masses, but they don't say that anymore," he said. "The trends of the times show that religion cannot be suppressed by power any longer."

It is the ferment in spiritual matters among ordinary Chinese, and not official attitudes, that gives Mr. Hong the most hope, however. "I see hundreds of people coming to convert," he said. "People feel supported by their religious belief in a way that is totally spiritual. Those who don't have this have their money and nothing else."

Hong Yang, second from right in the background, leads a Muslim prayer group in a home.

Majiazhuang is an important stop for an itinerant Muslim leader