The Chinese government has banned civil servants, students and teachers in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang from fasting in the month of Ramadan.
This announcement is not new as China’s ruling Communist party has restricted fasting for the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang for some years now.
Xinjiang regularly sees violent clashes between Uighurs and state security forces, which Beijing blames on “Islamic militants” seeking independence for the resource-rich region.
Human rights groups have said the cause of the tensions is due to the religious and cultural discrimination of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities by the Chinese government.
Government departments posted notices on their websites banning fasting during Ramadan, which began this weekend.
The commercial affairs bureau of Turfan city said on its website Monday that “civil servants and students cannot take part in fasting and other religious activities”.
The state-run Bozhou Radio and TV University said on its website that it would “enforce the ban on party members, teachers, and young people from taking part in Ramadan activities”.
“We remind everyone that they are not permitted to observe a Ramadan fast,” it added.
A weather bureau in Qaraqash County in western Xinjiang said on its website that “in accordance with instructions from higher authorities”, it “calls on all current and retired staff not to fast during Ramadan”.
A government office which manages the Tarim River basin posted pictures of its staff wearing traditional Uighur “doppa” caps tucking into a group meal on Saturday.
“Although the meal coincided with the Muslim festival of Ramadan, the cadres who took part expressed a positive attitude and will lead the non-fasting,” it said.
The Chinese government has justified the ban on fasting to “ensure the health and safety of government employees”.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uighur Congress, said that he was informed by local residents of Xinjiang that authorities encouraged Uighurs to eat free meals on Monday, and the police inspected homes to check if the fast was being observed.
He said: “China taking these kinds of coercive measures, restricting the faith of Uighurs, will create more conflict.
“We call on China to ensure religious freedom for Uighurs and stop political repression of Ramadan.”
Xinjiang comprises a large part of western China and is rich in oil reserves. It has a Muslim majority population, most of whom are Uighurs of Turkic origin. They speak the Turkic-Uighur language and are culturally quite distinct from the Han Chinese.
Muslim presence in China dates back centuries. There are even reports of Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqas (ra), a relative and companion of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), travelling to China and inviting the Chinese emperor to Islam. The Great Mosque of Guangzhou, which still exists today, is thought to have been built by Sa’ad (ra).
Muslim presence in China was relatively calm until the Manchu (Qing) dynasty began persecuting Muslims for their religion. The Muslims rebelled against the Manchu government a number of times but the rebellions were brutally crushed.
Matters got worse under the Communist government of Mao Zhedong when Islam was specifically targeted, many mosques and Islamic schools were closed and Muslims were tortured and killed.
Although the current Chinese government claims to offer fair and equal treatment to its Muslim population, Muslims in Xinjiang have been victims of systemic discrimination and persecution for some years now. The government has clamped down on the Uighur’s religious practices under the guise of “fighting extremism”.
These measures have supposedly been taken in response to clashes between Uighurs and the police earlier this year.
However, the deadliest violence that occurred in recent times in Xinjiang was in 2009 that led to the death of over 150 people and more than a thousand being injured.
Many Muslims have disappeared since then and their families are still being harassed by security forces.