Beijing: There has been widespread anger over China’s ban on civil servants, students and teachers from fasting and ordering restaurants to stay open during Ramadan in its mainly Muslim Xinjiang region, according to news agencies.
Most Muslims are required to fast from dawn to dusk during the holy month, which began on Thuesday, but China’s ruling Communist party is officially atheist and for years has restricted the practice in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
"Food service workplaces will operate normal hours during Ramadan," said a notice posted last week on the website of the state Food and Drug Administration in Xinjiang's Jinghe county.
Officials in the region's Bole county were told: "During Ramadan do not engage in fasting, vigils or other religious activities," according to a local government website report of a meeting this week.
Each year, the authorities’ attempt to ban fasting among Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang receives widespread criticism from rights groups.
Uighur rights groups say China's restrictions on Islam in Xinjiang have added to ethnic tensions in the region, where clashes have killed hundreds in recent years.
China says it faces a "terrorist threat" in Xinjiang, with officials blaming "religious extremism" for the growing violence.
"China's goal in prohibiting fasting is to forcibly move Uighurs away from their Muslim culture during Ramadan," said Dilxat Rexit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress. "Policies that prohibit religious fasting is a provocation and will only lead to instability and conflict."
As in previous years, school children were included in directives limiting Ramadan fasting and other religious observances.
The education bureau of Tarbaghatay city, known as Tacheng in Chinese, this month ordered schools to communicate to students that "during Ramadan, ethnic minority students do not fast, do not enter mosques ... and do not attend religious activities".
Similar orders were posted on the websites of other Xinjiang education bureaus and schools.
Officials in the region's Qiemo county this week met local religious leaders to inform them there would be increased inspections during Ramadan in order to "maintain social stability", the county's official website said.
Ahead of the holy month, one village in Yili, near the border with Kazakhstan, said mosques must check the identification cards of anyone who comes to pray during Ramadan, according to a notice on the government's website.
The Bole county government said that Mehmet Talip, a 90-year-old Uighur Communist Party member, had promised to avoid fasting and vowed to "not enter a mosque in order to consciously resist religious and superstitious ideas".
The Uighur leader Dilxat Raxit sees the move as China’s attempt to control their Islamic faith and warned that the restrictions would force the Uighur people to resist the rule of the Chinese government even more.
“The faith of the Uighurs has been highly politicized and the increase in controls could cause sharp resistance", he said.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have blamed separatist Uighurs for a string of terrorist attacks on civilian crowds and government institutions, but the group has consistently denied involvement. Activists have long-accused Beijing of exaggerating the threat as an excuse to impose restrictions.
“They [the Chinese government] are extracting guarantees from parents, promising that their children won't fast on Ramadan", Raxit told Radio Free Asia.
According to the government’s website, halal restaurants near the Kazakh border are being encouraged by food safety officials to stay open during daylight hours in Ramadan.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry published a statement this week saying that reports of Uyghurs being "banned from fasting and fulfilling other acts of worship have been received with sadness by the Turkish public opinion."
The ministry said it had conveyed Turkey's "deep concern" to the Chinese ambassador in Ankara.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry representative responded telling journalists in Beijing that "China has already demanded that Turkey clarify these reports, and we have expressed concern about the statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry."
Turkey, a majority Muslim country, has close ethnic, religious and linguistic ties to China's Uyghur minority.
In Malaysia, another country with a large Muslim population, the Chinese Embassy said in a statement on its website that "reports from foreign media regarding the banning of fasting during Ramadan are complete nonsense."
Beijing has vehemently denied accusations by human rights organizations that Uyghurs face widespread discrimination and curtailed religious freedom.