Beijing - China has imposed strict controls on the observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadaan by ethnic Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang, Uighur exiles and local officials said.
Measures include forbidding students from observing the traditional Muslim daytime Ramadaan fast, and monitoring their communications, the sources said.
Some 9 million Uighurs form the largest minority among the 21 million people in the vast, ethnically divided region that borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.
The mainly Muslim Uighurs complain of cultural and religious repression, and claim that ethnic Chinese migrants in Xinjiang enjoy the main benefits of development in the oil-rich but economically backward region.
The ruling Communist Party tries to assimilate Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities into mainstream Chinese culture.
But Uighur exiles and international rights groups say government policies are repressing Uighurs' cultural and religious aspirations.
Some pro-independence Uighurs have staged small-scale attacks, often targeting security forces, prompting the Communist party to declare a public battle against the “three evil forces” of religious extremism, separatism and terrorism.
Xinjiang is especially tense this Ramadaan following the death of at least 35 people last month during attacks by Uighurs on police stations, a government office and other buildings in Lukqun township.
“During the summer holiday, students are forbidden to take part in any religious activities or edit, broadcast or forward any kind of harmful information by computer or mobile phone,” said an online notice from the Kashgar Normal College in Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city some 3 000 kilometres west of Beijing.
“Students should return to school every Friday (during Ramadaan),” said a spokeswoman for the education bureau in Shache county, or Yarkand, about 200 kilometres south-east of Kashgar.
“(They are) not allowed to fast, nor are the teachers,” she told The schools and colleges monitor Uighur students' mobile phones, online chat accounts, micro-blogs and other social media, Dilxat Raxit, a Munich-based spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, told dpa.
The education office of Tekesi county in north-western Xinjiang reported that it held a meeting in late June for “security and stability.”
All 52 schools and 40 kindergartens in the county signed written agreements to ensure that no staff would fast, the Tekesi education bureau said, adding that the schools should sign “responsibility letters” with parents and students.
Local governments in Xinjiang also asked businesses to remain open and ordered public employees not to observe the fast.
The controls reach mosques and even family homes, Raxit said.
“During Ramadaan, religious groups are prohibited from holding any scripture training activities under any name,” he said.
“They (authorities) will enter Uighur families in the name of 'stability maintenance,' provide them with beverages and fruit and oversee them eating,” Raxit said. “Those who refuse (to eat and drink) will be accused of illegal fasting,” he said.
“Over the past year, authorities have intensified curbs on Islam, while discrimination (and) policies marginalizing the use of the Uighur language... have continued, exacerbating resentment among the Uighur community,” US-based Freedom House, which promotes democracy, said in recent report.
Ramadaan began shortly after the fourth anniversary of violence between Uighurs and members of the country's Han Chinese majority in the regional capital, Urumqi, that left some 200 dead and 1 600 injured, according to government reports.
The Global Times newspaper quoted an unidentified official as saying last month's Lukqun violence, which was followed by clashes in the Hotan area, “might have been prompted by the anniversary of the deadly riots (in Urumqi) and the approach of Ramadaan.”
The government ordered 24-hour patrols across Xinjiang following the Lukqun violence, imposing the “heaviest security measures since 2009” in Urumqi, the newspaper said.
Freedom House said the government had “blamed religious extremists and flooded the region with security forces” since 2009.
“But (it) maintains tight control over the flow of information and refuses to acknowledge the role that its repressive policies have played in heightening tensions,” the group said. - Sapa-dpa