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Chinese Authorities Close Most Mosques in Riot-Stricken Town

Chinese authorities closed most mosques in the far northwest city of Urumqi Friday, and urged the city's Muslims to pray at home. The city is under heavy security following several days of ethnic violence that started with a huge demonstration on Sunday that left more than 150 people dead.

Three local officials patrolling a Uighur neighborhood in Urumqi are making an announcement in the local Uighur language. A woman surnamed Bahai, 38, says they are telling people not to go to the mosque for Friday prayers, the main day of worship for Muslims.

She says the officials told them to pray at home today.

Many residents here say they have not been to pray at their local mosques all week. Some say the mosques have been closed. Others say they are afraid to leave the house. They are afraid of reprisals by Han Chinese following the Uighur-led riots on Sunday, as well as the government security crackdown.

The Uighurs are a mostly Muslim minority that share similarities with people in Central Asia. More than two million Uighurs live in Urumqi, but the city's overwhelming majority ethnic group is still the Han Chinese.

At the customary time for Friday prayers, small crowds of Muslim Uighurs gather across the street from one of the largest mosques in Urumqi, near the city's Grand Bazaar. Usually 3,000 to 5,000 men come to pray here, but it seems this week only a few hundred came by to see if they could pray.

Soldiers in green army uniforms parade in front of the mosque's entrance in steady intervals, and a few are stationed on top of one of the minarets.

Many mosque-goers are frustrated. One 40-year-old man who declined to give his name says it is not acceptable on a Friday to ask people to pray at home instead of at the mosque.

He says his religion's rules require him to pray in a larger group on Fridays.

Uighur religious leaders have condemned the violent events of this week, saying it is against the teachings and spirit of Islam.

The unrest in Urumqi and other parts of the Xinjiang region is causing concern at the top levels of the Chinese government. Chinese President Hu Jintao abandoned a G8 summit in Italy, and returned to deal with the unrest. In a statement broadcast on state television Friday, he said maintaining social stability in Xinjiang is the "most urgent task," and described the Sunday riots as "a serious crime" planned by separatists and terrorists, inside and outside China.

The Uighurs accuse the Chinese of discrimination and repression. The Chinese government accuses some Uighurs of seeking an independent homeland.