BEIJING – Some schools and local government agencies in China’s restive Xinjiang province have adopted policies that critics, including the Turkish government, say prevent residents from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The fast — traditionally observed from dawn until dusk — is a central tenet of Islam, the religion practiced by many of the ethnic Uyghurs native to China’s western province of Xinjiang.
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 Wednesday, 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.”
READ: Rare access to China’s far west
Senior Chinese officials insist they do not force Muslims in Xinjiang to break the Ramadan fast, citing clauses in the Chinese Constitution that enshrine freedom of religion.
But statements posted on the official websites of two middle schools, a village Communist Party branch and two county governments all include instructions that appear to be aimed at restricting people from observing religious rites during Ramadan.
The Food and Drug Administration for Xinjiang’s Jinghe County instructs employees to sign a statement that includes a “pledge to obey political discipline to firmly ensure that families that have (Communist) party members and students will not fast and will not participate in any forms of religious activities.”
Contacted by phone, an employee of the agency who refused to be named told CNN that “our main goal is to prevent extremists from threatening them.”
“Ordinary people can fast, have religion and worship … people are not forbidden from Ramadan as long as they are not Communist Party members,” the employee added. Within several hours of the conversation, the statement was removed from the Jinghe County government website.
The website of a middle school in the town of Bole published instructions calling for teachers to ensure that “students and juveniles do not fast during the holy month and do not participate in religious activities.”
A middle school in the city of Tunshuq published a statement on its website ordering department heads “to conduct thorough inspections of classrooms, canteens and dormitories before Ramadan; to completely prohibit teachers and students from participating in Ramadan activities.”
Reached by phone, a person from the school who also refused to be named told CNN that the policies against Ramadan were “a region-wide ban” aimed at preventing public servants and students from practicing religion.
“The Chinese communist government is being two-faced, trying to fool the international community,” said Seyit Tumturk, a Turkey-based leader of the World Uyghur Congress, a Munich-based group of Chinese Uyghur exiles.
“What they do to test you is, if you’re a student or teach or government worker, they give you water or food during lunch, and if you don’t accept it, they start a process against you,” he said in a phone interview with CNN.
“It can be fines or jail time depending on your past and how old you are and what you do,” Tumturk added.
Beijing has vehemently denied accusations by human rights organizations that Uyghurs face widespread discrimination and curtailed religious freedom.
Recent violent incidents have rocked Xinjiang. The arrival of waves of Han Chinese, the country’s predominant ethnic group, over past decades has fueled ethnic tensions.
Chinese officials have blamed recent attacks on Uyghur separatists, whom they also label as “religious extremists.”
In January, lawmakers in Xinjiang passed legislation banning residents of the provincial capital of Urumqi from wearing burqas in public.
There have also been reports of bans of Muslim veils, long beards, and the star and crescent symbols in other cities in the province. – CNN