KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — They left their village at a moment's notice, shedding their prayer caps and headscarves at the airport in favor of casual athletic wear, silently praying that they would not be prevented from leaving China.

The group of six travelers were Chinese Muslims, intent on completing the Hajj: a once-in-a-lifetime duty for Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, which this year took place between late June and early July.

"When we return to China, we may have our passports clipped or confiscated, but we will face whatever we have to when we return," said one of the three male travelers.

NPR kept in touch with this group of six pilgrims starting in May, as they set off from their village in northwestern China toward the holy city in Saudi Arabia. Their circuitous journey reflects the extraordinary means China is undertaking to surveil and stop its citizens from making the Hajj — as well as the equally resourceful ways believers circumvent them.

NPR is not using their names or naming their village to protect them from official scrutiny after returning to China.

Within China, authorities have severely restricted practicing religions, especially Christianity and Islam. In the region of Xinjiang, at least hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, a historically Muslim ethnic minority, have been detained or arrested since 2017. Elsewhere, across northwestern China, provincial authorities have demolished mosques or forcibly removed their Arabic-style domes, closed Islamic schools and surveilled religious leaders.

This year, as global travel has picked up in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese authorities are cutting off nearly all pathways abroad for Muslim believers, citing concerns that they may be radicalized abroad or encourage religious fervor once they return to China.

Public security officers were dispatched to domestic airports to screen outbound travelers headed to Islamic countries and tasked with phoning up and coercing pilgrims already abroad to turn back and go home, according to interviews with a dozen Chinese Muslims. Those found to have privately made the Hajj outside of state-authorized tours are detained or arrested upon returning to China.

"China wants to control you even when you are outside the country," one of the pilgrims said.

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