By: Eset Sulaiman
In spite of assurances by Beijing that ethnic Uyghurs living in China’s mostly Muslim Xinjiang region enjoy full religious freedom, government workers routinely block their right to fast during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, sources in the region say.
On June 2, China issued a white paper lauding “unprecedented” levels of religious freedom in Xinjiang, adding that “no citizen suffers discrimination or unfair treatment for believing in, or not believing in, any religion,” according to official media.
However, several local government departments and middle or high schools in the Uyghur region have posted notices online in recent days ordering restrictions on the Muslim duty to fast during Ramadan, local sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“We have forbidden [ruling Chinese Communist] Party members, cadres, civil servants, and village officials, in fact anyone drawing a salary from the state, from praying or fasting during Ramadan,” one local official in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture said.
“We also do not allow students or anyone under the age of 18 to enter the mosques to pray,” the official—Alim Abdurahman, a “stability worker” in Yengieriq township in Aksu’s Awat (Awati) county—said.
Stability cadres regularly undertake “focused inspections” of individuals and families regarded by local authorities as suspicious, sometimes including other cadres or local officials coming from a religious background, Abdurahman said.
“If we think that someone may be fasting, we will invite them to the village office to ‘drink tea’ with us to see if they are fasting or not,” he said.
“We also use other methods to get information on villagers’ religious activities through our ‘secret eyes and ears’ or through our ‘neighbor watch’ program,” he said.
Forbidden to believe
Schoolchildren too are barred from religious observance, according to a letter posted online by administrators of High School 46 in the regional capital Urumqi and addressed to the parents of pupils at the school.
“[Children] are forbidden from any kind of religious belief,” said the letter, which appeared on the social medial platforms WeChat and Facebook beginning June 4, the day before Ramadan began.
“Parents should follow the Party’s rules of education and bar their children from illegal religious activities such as praying, fasting, going to mosques, wearing religious dress, studying religion, and so on,” the letter read.
Speaking to RFA, school director Hao Jiangli denied all knowledge of the letter, claiming he no longer works in the office whose phone he had just picked up to take a reporter’s call.
“I have already moved from my post at High School 46,” Hao said.
“I can’t tell you who posted this letter on the website. Actually, I have no information about it at all,” he said.
“This information is incorrect,” another school official, Rozi Abla, head of the high school’s office of political and moral education, said. “We never sent any letter like that.”
Students forced to eat
A young Uyghur studying at Kashgar University in western Xinjiang’s Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture said that administrators at his school now “regularly check each classroom and force Uyghur students to drink water or eat something in front of them.”
“Our university administration distributes a bottle of water for every Uyghur student during school hours,” the student said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Students’ bags are checked during the day to see if they contain meals meant to be eaten when the day’s fast ends at sundown, and if any are found, the students must eat them right away, he said.
“The university administration always warns us that if students fast or pray, they will be expelled from the university or will not receive a diploma or certificate when they graduate.”
Officials in southwestern Xinjiang’s Hotan City have meanwhile ordered restaurants and stores selling food and drink to remain open during fasting hours, with fines imposed on owners who fail to comply, the owner of a traditional medicine store in Hotan named Obulqasim said.
“I have heard from friends working in government departments that water bottles are being distributed to civil servants and other cadres, and that they must drink these in front of others,” Obulqasim said.
“These kinds of absurdities happen every year in Hotan during Ramadan,” he said.
Reported and translated by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.