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Sunday, 25 June, 2000, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Iran forges links with China's Muslims
Kashgar street scene
Kashgar in Xinjiang Province: Ancient links with the Muslim world
The Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has said Tehran wants to expand ties with China's mainly Muslim province of Xinjiang.

Mr Khatami, currently on a five-day visit to China, was speaking during talks with the provincial governor, Ebent Abd al-Rashid, in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.

The province, home to half of China's 20 million Muslims, is a hotbed of religiously-inspired separatism.

Mr Khatami arrived in Urumqi just 10 days after five Muslim militants were executed there for separatist crimes.

Economic ties

Mr Khatami said Iran was ready to help Xinjiang in the areas of oil and gas, among others.



Xinjiang - China's westernmost province - could "serve as a bridge connecting great China with Central Asia and the Muslim world," he was quoted as saying.

Iran's official news agency Irna said Mr Khatami would meet Muslim scholars and members of the official Islamic Association of Xinjiang.

Chinese officials tend to portray Islam as thriving under communist rule, but Uighurs in Xinjiang - ethnically Turkic Muslims - are in revolt against Chinese rule there.

Afghan connection

While the separatists once drew inspiration from Iran's Islamic revolution, they have more recently turned to militant forms of Sunni Islam propagated by Afghanistan's Taliban.

Most of the aid for the militants comes from Afghanistan, not from Iran.

Mr Khatami, who arrived in China on Thursday, called on Asian civilisations to unite against Western dominance, during a speech to students in Beijing.


Khatami
Khatami visited Beijing's imperial monuments

He said Asia was a "new focal point of world culture, economics and politics".

But the image Asian countries had of each other was "mainly constructed through the agency of Western principles and information channels".

"Such perspectives need to be reconsidered," he added.

East versus West

He insisted that the cultural, economic and political systems of the world could not be left to the whims of the dominant powers - a clear reference to the US and its Western allies.

"In the current process of globalisation, the needs of the under-developed countries should not be overlooked," he said.

Although the 170-strong Iranian delegation includes defence officials, Beijing says the visit has "nothing to do with the issue of military co-operation".

China is a major source of arms for Iran, but both sides insist that will not be on the agenda this time around.

China and Iran have signed a number of co-operation agreements during Mr Khatami's visit.

If all the deals are realised, China could become Iran's biggest trading partner.

According to China, bilateral trade grew to $1.3bn in 1999.

Mosque

In Beijing, Mr Khatami met government-backed Muslim clerics and prayed at the Ox Street Mosque, a centre of religious life for the city's Muslim community for 1,000 years.

He stopped at a stone with Persian and Chinese inscriptions that commemorated close ties between Persia and China about 600 years ago.

Sunni Islam is traditionally practised in China, in contrast to the Shiite Islam of Iran.

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See also:

23 Jun 00 | Middle East
Country Profile: Iran
16 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
China executes five Uighurs
27 May 00 | Middle East
Iran parliament enters new era
29 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
China clampdown on Muslim region
18 Apr 00 | World
Executions decline in 1999
23 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
China fury over human rights
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