WASHINGTON—Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, are implementing a campaign to offer free lunches during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when eating is proscribed until sundown.
The lunches are being offered in government departments to ethnic Uyghur and Han Chinese officials alike, employees said.
Uyghur exiles say that Chinese authorities have previously offered free lunches during Ramadan as a means of determining who is fasting.
An official who answered the phone at the Party committee offices of Hotan prefecture, in the south of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, confirmed the plan.
"This is the decision of the government leaders," she said, but declined to give further details.
A Uyghur employee at the Hotan government's department of taxation confirmed that the free lunches were on offer during the fasting month, which will end with the fast-breaking festival of Eid Al-Fitr this year on Oct. 1.
"We have to follow the rules and regulations as well," he said. "Our department doesn't provide lunch every day for employees, but they provide a free lunch on certain days in every week."
Meals for Uyghur staff
"They provide Uyghur meals for Uyghur employees and Chinese food for the Chinese employees of the department. We don't pay for the lunch," he said.
"I don't know where the money comes from. Maybe the senior managers pay for it."
Several callers to RFA's Uyghur listener hotlines complained of similar campaigns throughout Xinjiang.
"The government's campaign of providing free lunch during the Ramadan hurts me a lot," one listener said.
China on Tuesday lashed out at US accusations that it was stepping up curbs on religious freedom.
The U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom worldwide said the situation in China worsened over the last year while also singling out North Korea, Egypt, and Iran for curbs on freedoms of belief.
'Interference in China's affairs'
"China is strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed to the US accusation in its religious freedom report," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement.
"The criticism of China's religious policy and situation is groundless, violates the basic norms of international relations and is interference in China's internal affairs."
The U.S. report said that the Chinese government's repression of religious freedom "intensified" in some areas, including Tibet and Xinjiang.
China's Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, who are believed to number around 11 million, have already complained of government restrictions during this year's Ramadan.
Police in Lop county, Hotan, said they were forcing men to shave their beards and uncovering veiled women "by force, if necessary," while Muslim-run restaurants were being pushed into signing pledges to remain open during the fasting period, as is the custom in other Islamic regions of the world.
Officials in Atush city, in the far west of the remote Tarim Basin were dispatched to count all the restaurants run by Muslims and to “educate” their owners into signing the agreement of their own accord, the municipal Web site said. Official Web sites in other parts of the region cited similar measures.
'Pressure to sign pledges'
Similar restrictions are in force in Toqsu [in Chinese, Xinhe] and Shaya counties, near Kucha, where up to 10 alleged Muslim attackers were reportedly killed after assaulting a local police station Aug. 10.
During Ramadan, Muslims who are able should take no food, water, or cigarettes during daylight hours. Restaurants in Muslim countries often close during the day, re-opening to break the fast after sunset.
Exiled Uyghur groups said Uyghur government cadres throughout Xinjiang had been forced to sign “letters of responsibility” promising to avoid fasting, evening prayers, or other religious activities.
Special groups have been set up in schools to educate Uyghur teachers and students not to fast, and to monitor their activities on pain of expulsion from school, the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said in a statement signed by spokesman Dilxat Raxit.
The Uyghurs, many of whom chafe under Beijing's rule, formed two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 40s during the Chinese civil war and the Japanese invasion. Beijing has launched a campaign against separatism, styling it a war on Islamist terrorism.
It has also accused "hostile forces" in the West of fomenting unrest in the strategically important and resourch-rich region, which borders several countries in Central Asia.
Original reporting by Guljekre for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Omer Kanat. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.