Chinese officials have restricted civil servants, students and children in a mainly Muslim region from fasting during Ramadan, government websites said as the holy month began on Monday.
The country’s ruling Communist party is officially atheist and for years has banned government employees and minors from fasting in Xinjiang, home to the more than 10 million-strong mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
It has also ordered some restaurants to stay open.
The region sees regular clashes between Uighurs and state security forces. Beijing has blamed deadly attacks there and elsewhere in China on militants seeking independence for the resource-rich region.
Rights groups blame tensions on religious and cultural restrictions imposed on Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the vast area, which abuts Central Asia.
Several local government departments in Xinjiang have posted notices on their websites in the last week ordering restrictions on fasting during Ramadan.
During the holy month, the faithful fast from dawn to dusk and strive to be more pious.
“Party members, cadres, civil servants, students and minors must not fast for Ramadan and must not take part in religious activities,” said a notice posted last Thursday on the official website of the city of Korla in central Xinjiang.
“During the Ramadan month, food and drink businesses must not close,” it added.
A Uighur official in the city’s Tiekeqi township named Ahmatjan Tohti told a meeting on Monday last week that officials should “resolutely stop party members, civil servants, students and minors from entering mosques for religious activities” during the month, according to a separate report on the website.
A website run by the education bureau of Shuimogou district in the regional capital Urumqi posted a notice on Monday last week calling for “prevention of students and teachers from all schools from entering mosques for religious activities” during Ramadan.
In the northern city of Altay, officials agreed to “increase contact with parents” to “prevent fasting during Ramadan”, according to a post Friday on the state-run China Ethnicities Religion website.
The website of the Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County government in northwest Xinjiang said Monday that restaurants in the area would be instructed to stay open during Ramadan to “ensure that the broader masses have normal access to cuisine”.
Dilxat Raxit of the World Uyghur Congress, an exile group, condemned the restrictions in an email Monday, adding: “China thinks that the Islamic faith of Uighurs threatens the rule of the Beijing leadership.”
China tightly controls religious groups despite frequently proclaiming that its citizens have freedom of belief.
The top Communist official in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, wished the region’s Muslims “a happy Ramadan”, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
And the country’s State Council or cabinet last Thursday released a white paper which declared that religious freedom in Xinjiang “cannot be matched by any other period in history”.
“During the month of Ramadan, Muslim restaurants can decide whether they want to do business. There will be no interference,” it said.
“Local governments ensure that all religious activities during Ramadan go on in an orderly manner,” it added.