Residents of the mostly Uyghur-populated Makit (in Chinese, Maigaiti) county in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have been ordered to report anyone discovered to be fasting in observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to sources.
For years, Uyghurs in the XUAR have been prohibited from fully observing Ramadan due to religious persecution and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government, which has in many cases banned Uyghur civil servants, students and teachers from fasting during the holy month.
In certain areas of the region, access to mosques is more tightly controlled and restaurants are ordered to remain open, while Uyghur retirees are often forced to pledge ahead of Ramadan that they won’t fast or pray to set an example for the wider community and to assume responsibility for ensuring others also refrain.
While speaking with official sources in several different prefectures to learn more about what kinds of restrictions are in place during Ramadan, which is observed between April 23 and May 23 this year, RFA’s Uyghur Service learned that implementation varies widely—with clear regulations against fasting in some locales and few in others that have already had effective bans in place for several years.
In one example of an approach to stamping out observance of Ramadan, authorities have ramped up a propaganda campaign against fasting in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Makit—a county in which some 83 percent of the population is Uyghur—where residents have been informed that they are required to turn in any friends or relatives who take part.
RFA recently spoke with a Uyghur employee of the Makit county government who said that residents have been told that they could face punishment for fasting, including being sent to one of the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017.
“Propaganda on Ramadan is prevalent in the counties, townships, and villages,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Taking part in Ramadan practices is propagated as a form of religious extremism.”
A Uyghur village leader in Makit, who also declined to be named, told RFA county-level authorities had issued a notice during a special meeting ahead of Ramadan which “said not to fast.”
Ordered to report
The reasoning behind the county campaign is to uphold “national security,” a Uyghur government employee of a township in Makit explained to RFA.
“If they fast, then they’ll gather to eat, and if they gather, then they’ll disturb the society—they’ll threaten national security,” she said. “That’s why we propagate against keeping Ramadan.”
But the employee said, “it’s already been two or three years that people haven’t been fasting” in her village and that “everyone knows [not to], so they just naturally don’t.”
When asked what residents should do if they discover someone fasting, the employee said they should report them to authorities.
“If we find people observing Ramadan, we’ll inform the responsible officials in the villages and townships,” she said.
“[We should tell] the county police, but since we haven’t found anyone fasting in our township, we haven’t reported anyone yet.”
RFA also spoke with an official in Kashgar’s Peyziwat (Jiashi) county who said his township had instituted mandatory attendance at a daily dawn flag raising ceremony as well as evening political studies, which he said was part of a bid to prevent residents from fasting because those are the only times of the day that they are allowed to eat, according to Muslim tradition.
“Since we started the flag raising ceremony, neighbors’ surveillance of one another has been strengthened, so nobody is able to make time to break the fast,” he said.
“The evening political studies start at 9:30 p.m. and end at 11:30 p.m., and they are held at the neighborhood committee.”
A Uyghur officer at the Beimen District Police Station in the XUAR capital Urumqi told RFA that while residents there have not been ordered residents to report one another for fasting, authorities are keeping a close eye on who is observing Ramadan and keeping a record of their activities.
“Yes, there are [special guidelines in place for Ramadan] … [but] our boss us instructed us not to talk about that over the phone,” he said.
When asked whether there is a register of people who are fasting and attending mosques during the holy month, the officer said, “yes, there is.”
“We have a special police unit assigned to keep track of that,” he added.
Fasting for empathy
Last month, to mark the start of Ramadan, Uyghur exile groups urged the international community to speak out on behalf of members of their ethnic group enduring persecution in the XUAR.
In particular, they called on Muslims around the world “to keep the Uyghur people in their thoughts and prayers during the holy month of Ramadan and to call on their respective governments to demand that China immediately ceases its religious persecution of Uyghurs.”
The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) noted that Muslim-majority nations and leaders have been “shamefully silent” on the situation in Xinjiang, urging them “to reconnect with the beliefs and values they hold and to do what is right by demanding China stop its crimes against humanity against Uyghurs.”
Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU) pointed out that for Muslims, “fasting reminds us of the suffering, struggle, and pain of others—we put ourselves in the shoes of those less fortunate.”
“Therefore, we ask you to do the same. Remember the Uyghurs who are ripped away from their families, those who are persecuted for their peaceful religion, and those who continue to be prisoners with no crime.”
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region, which also include the use of advanced technology and information to control and suppress its citizens.
Last year, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the internment camps in the XUAR “one of the worst human rights crises of our time” and “truly the stain of the century.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.