China is placing restrictions on its Muslim Uyghur population during the fasting month of Ramadan, following a string of violent attacks in its northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said Ramadan, which runs roughly from Aug. 1-30 this year, has brought a fresh clampdown on Muslims in the wake of violent attacks in the Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Hotan.
The group has said that more than 100 Uyghurs were detained in the wake of an attack on a market in Kashgar last weekend. Most of those detained as suspects were committed Muslims who attended mosque and whose wives wore veils, residents say.
Raxit said the chief restriction lies in a ban on mosques from advertising Ramadan-linked events or in encouraging people to observe the month-long fast.
“If any religious figure discusses Ramadan during the course of religious activities, or encourages people to take part, then they will lose their license to practice,” Raxit said.
“The more serious cases will result in arrests for incitement to engage in illegal religious activity,” he said.
During Ramadan, Muslims who are able should take no food, water, or cigarettes during daylight hours. Restaurants in Muslim countries close during the day, re-opening to break the fast after sunset.
However, government campaigns in previous years have forced restaurants to stay open, and required Uyghur government cadres throughout Xinjiang to sign “letters of responsibility” promising to avoid fasting, evening prayers, or other religious activities.
Officials have also targeted Muslim schoolchildren, providing them with free lunches during the fasting period.
Raxit said similar restrictions were in place for government cadres, who risk losing pensions and other benefits. Private companies are offering lunches to Uyghur Muslims, and any who refuse to eat could lose their annual bonus, or even their job, he added.
According to the Beijing-based Uyghur Online website, the government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has announced a ban on any religious activities during the Muslim holy month.
The restrictions were being imposed “to preserve social stability,” the website reported.
An employee who answered the phone at a local government neighborhood committee office in the regional capital Urumqi, which saw deadly ethnic rioting in July 2009, confirmed the restrictions.
“Fasting during Ramadan is a traditional ethnic custom, and they are allowed to do that,” she said. “But they aren’t allowed to hold any religious activities during Ramadan.”
And she added: “Party members are not allowed to fast for Ramadan, and neither are civil servants.”
An employee who answered the phone at a mosque in Urumqi said people from out of town are banned from attending mosques in Urumqi for prayers during August.
Everyone attending prayers has to register with their national identity card, he added.
“They have to register,” he said. “[After prayers] they aren’t allowed to [congregate and] talk to each other.”
Foreigners have been barred from entering mosques in the region, mosque officials said.
A Uyghur resident of Beijing said students under 18 are forbidden from fasting during Ramadan.
And an employee who answered the phone at a Muslim restaurant in Urumqi said it would remain open all month.
Kashgar prefecture Communist Party chief Cheng Zhenshan vowed to fight “separatists,” “religious extremists,” and “terrorists” with “iron fists,” following the weekend violence in the Silk Road city that left at least 14 people dead and 40 others injured.
The attacks in Kashgar and those in the nearby city of Hotan two weeks ago in which 20 people were killed are the bloodiest violence in a year in Xinjiang, where Muslim Uyghurs chafe under Chinese rule.
Deadly riots in Xinjiang’s regional capital of Urumqi left at least 200 dead in July 2009 following clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghurs.
Chinese commentators say the slew of recent attacks in Xinjiang show that Beijing’s policy on ethnic minorities has gone badly wrong.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA’s Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.