Officials in China's restive western region of Xinjiang have told Muslims to ignore religious customs during the holy month of Ramadan, an indication of what rights groups say is discrimination targeting the Uighur minority group.
The fasting month follows a series of attacks around China, centred on Xinjiang, that Beijing has blamed on Islamists they say are seeking to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
State media reports of official notices have emerged in recent days, demanding that party members, civil servants, students and teachers not to observe Ramadan.
Officials in the region have compelled some Muslim restaurant owners to remain open for the month which began last Saturday. Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan, during which many abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours.
Officials at state-run Xinjiang Broadcasting Network in northwest Xinjiang's Ili prefecture were reminded this week that observing Ramadan was a violation of Communist Party discipline and that Saturday's anniversary was "a sensitive time for social stability work". "All party members and workers from the Ili branch office must not fast ... must not participate in religious activities, and must carry out work guiding and educating relatives," a notice on the cable television station's website said.
Other government websites have given similar instructions.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including restrictions on religious practices, have provoked unrest, allegations denied by Beijing. "China uses administrative threats, economic penalties, judicial investigations and other means to restrict Uighurs from fasting during Ramadan, trampling on their faith," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled Uighur group, the World Uyghur Congress, said in an email to reporters. "Due to China's extreme restrictions, Uighurs are facing a faith crisis."
But a spokeswoman for the Xinjiang government, Hou Hanmin, told Reuters by phone that China did not curb fasting. "It's just emphasising the need to continue to go to work, to study and carry on with regular duties. It doesn't restrict people on whether or not they eat," Hou said.
Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of 2009 riots in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, where nearly 200 people were killed after ethnic violence erupted between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese. One village school near Ulugqat county close to China's western border said students were prohibited from entering mosques, according to a party-affiliated news site, Pingan Net.
Since June 26, officials in the city of Aksu, a regional hub in western Xinjiang that has been a hot spot for ethnic unrest, have swept neighbourhoods, checking business licences of shop owners who serve halal food, state media said. "During the inspections, 21 owners of halal restaurants gave the working groups signed declarations that said they would not close their doors during the Ramadan period," the Aksu news portal reported on Wednesday. The article gave no reason for the checks, but said that officials "conducted on-sight education" and "clearly informed those who would not be dissuaded against closing down that their vendor's booths could be revoked".
China's Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but it maintains a tight grip on religious activities and allows only officially recognised religious institutions to operate. Around 200 people have died in attacks blamed on Xinjiang militants in the last year or so, and the authorities have launched a campaign to stop the violence, detaining hundreds and executing a dozen. China has around 20 million Muslims spread throughout the country, only a portion of which are Uighur, a Turkic-language speaking group that calls Xinjiang home.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie)