Uyghur Muslims in oil-rich Karamay city in China's troubled Xinjiang region have been banned from holding private religious discussions and barred from traveling to mosques outside their residential areas during Islam's holy month of Ramadan, which began this week, according to residents Thursday.
The new restrictions are part of tightened measures across Xinjiang, home to the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur people, following a spate of deadly violence, the residents said, citing orders read out to them by police and other security officials.
"We have been informed that the situation is like being under martial law," a Karamay Uyghur woman resident told RFA's Uyghur Service, quoting security officials.
The woman said that the officials told her and several others that security in Karamay had been bolstered since June 26, when Uyghurs attacked police and government offices in Turpan prefecture's Lukchun township in violence that left at least 46 dead.
The incident led to a string of violence in Xinjiang, leaving at least 64 dead in total, as the region marked the fourth anniversary of the July 5, 2009 violence between minority ethnic Muslim Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese in the regional capital Urumqi.
"A lot of security forces are in the city during this time presumably because they want to secure this oil-rich place," said the woman, who came in contact with the officials after she and a few others had submitted petitions on community problems to the authorities
The authorities in Karamay, which means "black oil" in the Uyghur language referring to the oil fields near the city, have published an order banning religious discussions and large gatherings during the Ramadan which began on Tuesday, the Karamay Daily reported.
"Due to Ramadan, places of worship will be forbidden from holding all sorts of religious teaching activity," it said. "If there are violations, the places will be sealed."
Under the new regulations, Uyghurs in the city are also not allowed to go to mosques outside their residential areas and have to conduct their mosque prayers within stipulated hours, residents said.
There will also be an "around-the-clock" monitoring of mosques to ensure their security, they said.
The heightened measures have been criticized by Uyghur and international rights groups pushing for religious freedom in China.
Call to end restrictions
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent government commission dedicated to defending the right to freedom of religion, called for an end to the restrictions on religious activity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
“Launched in the name of stability and security, Beijing’s campaigns of repression against Uyghur Muslims include the targeting of peaceful private gatherings for religious study and devotion,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, the commission's chairperson.
“These abuses predictably have led to neither stability nor security, but rather instability and insecurity," she said. "Through its campaign of repression, the Chinese government has egregiously abused internationally recognized human rights, including the right of freedom of religion or belief."
"We urge the government to lift these restrictions, especially with the start of Ramadan.”
The commission said religious freedom conditions in the Xinjiang have deteriorated significantly since the 2009 violence in Urumqi which left about 200 dead according to state media.
It said that the Chinese government has instituted sweeping security measures that include efforts to "weaken religious adherence and stop 'illegal religious gatherings' and 'illegal religious activities,'" adding that such restrictions on Uyghur Muslim religious activities have caused "deep resentment of Beijing’s oversight of the XUAR."
Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur exile leader, called on Uyghurs to use the Ramadan period to renew their determination to defend their religious freedom.
"The Uyghur people will not lose their religion no matter what obstacles come in their way," she told RFA.
Uyghur residents in Kashgar and Turpan prefectures who were interviewed expressed dismay at the increasing restrictions on religious practices, including preventing Muslims from fasting during Ramadan.
Uyghur government officials, teachers, and students are among those who are barred from fasting, they said. Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
"[The ruling Chinese Communist] Party cadres make sudden visits to our homes to check whether anyone barred from fasting is actually fasting," one woman resident said.
Some groups have charged that party officials go to Uyghur homes to provide them with food and drink during fasting hours.
In Xinjiang, Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
Chinese authorities blame outbreaks of violence in the region on Uyghur "terrorists," but rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against the Uyghur minority.
Reported by Mihray Abdulim and Gulchehra Keyum for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.