Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have imposed curbs on the public observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan among the region's Uyghur ethnic minority, an exile group said on Monday.
The government, which earlier this month stepped up security around the sensitive anniversary of the 2009 ethnic violence between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese that killed nearly 200 people, has banned any public religious activities by the region's Muslims, according to a spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
"They have set up Ramadan stability groups in every official department and organization, and they have to select people to serve on them," spokesman Dilxat Raxit said. "Officials from these departments have to go and stay in mosques, so as to carry out personal surveillance work in all localities."
The Muslim holy month devoted to dawn-to-dusk fasting, prayers and good deeds culminates with the three-day holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
Meanwhile, teachers and professors, members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and other civil servants in Xinjiang are barred from fasting during this year's Ramadan, which began Thursday and ends on Aug. 18, according to Raxit.
"They will be stationed in the mosques round-the-clock during Ramadan," he said. "They will carry out both technological surveillance and personal surveillance."
An employee who answered the phone at a mosque in the regional capital of Urumqi said tourists would be banned from visiting the city's mosques during the whole of Ramadan, when additional prayers would be held during the fasting hours between sunrise and sunset.
"Yes, that's right," the employee said, when asked if special measures were being taken in the mosque.
"No tourists are being allowed in right now; they can't take part in prayers," the employee said. "We'll see how things go after Ramadan."
In the the southern city of Aksu, police were stepping up searches of local Muslims for "illegal" religious materials deemed extreme or subversive by Beijing, residents said.
"They are quite likely to conduct searches at night," said an employee who answered the phone at an apartment complex in the city. "
Restaurants run by Uyghur Muslims are forbidden to close in daytime during the fasting month, as is the custom in other Islamic regions of the world.
"Fasting is [the Uyghurs'] custom," the employee said. "No-one says they can't fast, but restaurants must remain open as normal."
Raxit said that mosques would be required to hold ideological meetings every Friday with Party officials, so as to monitor the mood of local Uyghurs.
A Han Chinese resident of Urumqi surnamed Zhong said he thought the measures were too harsh, however.
"This is definitely wrong," he said. "This is interference in other people's religious traditions."
He said some restaurants in Urumqi did seem to be closing early during the fasting month.
"I went to a Uyghur restaurant [on Sunday] and they only opened from 9 a.m. to 12 noon," Zhong said.
Chinese authorities imposed a security clampdown in major cities in Xinjiang on July 5, the third anniversary of the start of ethnic violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi that left 197 dead and hundreds more injured, according to official reports.
The authorities had stepped up security searches and police presence in Urumqi.
The regional secretary of the Communist Party Zhang Chunxian, who was appointed as a "new broom" in the wake of the 2009 violence, called on police across the region to step up security measures to prevent a terrorist attack, the region's state-run Xinjiang Daily newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Following the violence, China had ramped up its anti-terrorism campaign in the resource-rich region, where Uyghurs say they are subjected to political control and persecution for seeking meaningful autonomy in their homeland and are denied economic opportunities stemming from Beijing's rapid development.
The WUC has said thousands of Uyghurs, mostly men, went missing in the aftermath of the violence, many of them taken into custody with little or no notice or explanation given to their relatives.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service and Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.