Ramadan Curbs Imposed in China

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September 9, 2008
Ramadan Curbs Imposed in China

BEIJING — Local governments in a Muslim desert region in western China have imposed strict limits on religious practices during the traditional Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began last week, according to the Web sites of four of those governments.

The rules include prohibiting women from wearing veils and men from growing beards, as well as barring government officials from observing Ramadan. One town, Yingmaili, requires that local officials check up on mosques at least twice a week during Ramadan.

The local governments administer areas in the western part of Xinjiang, a vast autonomous region that is home to the Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic people who often chafe under rule by the ethnic Han Chinese. In August, a wave of attacks swept through Xinjiang, the largest surge of violence in the region in years. Some local officials blamed the instability on separatist groups, and the central government dispatched security forces to the area.

The limits on religious practices put in place by local governments appear to be part of the broader security crackdown. The areas affected by the new rules are near Kuqa, a town struck by multiple bombings on Aug. 10.

It was unclear whether the rules would be relaxed after Ramadan, a holiday that some Islamic extremists have used elsewhere as a symbolic backdrop for attacks on their perceived enemies. It was also unclear how the Chinese authorities intended to enforce the rules, which appeared to run the risk of antagonizing devout Muslims who present no obvious security threat.

The Web site of the town of Yingmaili lists nine rules put in place to “maintain stability during Ramadan.”

They include barring teachers and students from observing Ramadan, prohibiting retired government officials from entering mosques and requiring men to shave off beards and women to doff veils. Mosques cannot let people from outside of town stay overnight and restaurants must maintain normal hours of business. Many restaurants close in daytime hours during Ramadan because of the sunrise-to-sunset fasting.

In nearby Xinhe County, the government has decreed that Communist Party members, civil servants and retired officials must not observe Ramadan, enter mosques or take part in any religious activities during the month. Worshippers cannot make pilgrimages to tombs, so as to “to avoid any group event that might harm social stability,” according to the Xinhe government’s Web site.

In addition, children and students cannot be forced to attend religious activities, and women cannot be forced to wear veils.

County rules also stress the need to maintain a strict watch over migrant workers and visitors from outside. Companies and families who have workers or visitors from outside the county are required to register the outsiders with the nearest police station and have the outsiders sign an agreement “on maintaining social stability.”

Some of those rules are similar to ones implemented in Beijing right before the Olympic Games began in early August.

Shayar County, which includes the town of Yingmaili, said on its Web site that migrants must register with the police, and that any missionary work by outsiders is banned. Even outside Ramadan, China is wary of missionaries doing any kind of work in the country.

The city of Artux is also preventing its teachers and students from observing Ramadan. As a result, schools have to keep serving food and water, city authorities said. As with the other governments, the overall goal is “to maintain social stability during Ramadan.”

In some parts of the world, militants see Ramadan as a good time to carry out attacks because they believe achieving martyrdom during the holy fasting month is an especially sacred act.

In Iraq, religious extremists carried out waves of bombings during Ramadan in recent years. But the Chinese government has not presented any evidence showing that separatists in Xinjiang might do the same this year.