Beijing: With Muslims around the world observing the holy month of Ramadan, Chinese authorities have again launched a crackdown on fasting and religious practices by Islamic minorities.
The restrictions are particularly enforced in the Muslim-majority Western province of Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities frequently stay at the homes of Muslim families to suppress religious activities, according to the Human Rights Watch and activists.
During Ramadan, Muslims traditionally fast from dawn to dusk and refrain from smoking and other vices.
Amnesty International said in a report released late last week Chinese authorities view Ramadan fasting — along with other displays of religious affiliation including beards, headscarves, regular prayers and avoidance of alcohol — as a “sign of extremism”.
“Any of these can land you in one of Xinjiang’s internment camps, which the government calls ‘transformation-through-education centres’”, the report said.
Chinese authorities have long viewed organised religion as a threat to party loyalty, keeping a tight rein on all religious groups, but Muslim minorities in Xinjiang region have borne the brunt of far more aggressive crackdowns.
While restrictions on Ramadan fasting in schools and government offices have existed for decades, mass surveillance and detentions have intensified over the past three years in an effort to stop families from adhering to Muslim traditions even within their own homes, Alip Erkin, a Uyghur media activist for the Uyghur Bulletin, said.
Mr Erkin said people now feared they could be sent to internment camps “if they engaged in any religious activities or expressed their religious identities or traditional cultures”.
The ABC approached China’s National Religious Affairs Administration for comment, but it did not respond by the time of publication.
But in a press conference on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang maintained that China administers religious affairs “according to law”.
“We are resolute in rejecting and fighting religious extremism,” he said when questioned about the situation in Xinjiang.
“Believers’ normal religious activities are guaranteed in accordance with law and their customs respected.”
Forced group lunches and lectures on socialist values
Mr Erkin, who now lives in Australia, said throughout his schooling, fasting and praying during Ramadan were discouraged.
“In 2014 the ban [crackdown] intensified,” he said.
“They began gathering people in their workplaces and schools and served them lunch to make sure they do not fast.”
The ABC has found posts and notices on various government websites dating from 2014 and 2015 which ban fasting and Ramadan traditions, and warn that any restaurant which closes during Ramadan risks losing its licence.
Those government websites do not appear to have more recent posts forbidding fasting and prayers, but activists say an unofficial ban for students and government officials remains in place throughout China.
The crackdown on religious freedom at home has also intensified over the past few years.
While there were strict limitations within government institutes throughout China during 2014 and 2015, Mr Erkin said families were still afforded religious freedom at home.
“My father, who was a businessman and had no connection to the Government, was able to fast at home without restriction,” Mr Erkin said.
But by May 2017 all that changed, he said, and his father — who was a devout Muslim — was detained.
In the same year, reports of mass internment began to emerge and surveillance intensified.
The United Nations estimates up to 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim groups have been detained in re-education camps in the Xinjiang province since 2017.
Cameras and audio recorders now line every streetand monitor the doorways of many households.
Government officials monitor families through ‘home stays’
Government officials have also began making regular “home stays” in Xinjiang during which “families are required to provide officials with information about their lives and political views, and are subjected to political indoctrination”, according to a Human Rights Watch report from May last year.
Aileen, 37, a Hui Muslim from the north-western Gansu province, said officials regularly searched homes and stayed with families in Xinjiang for about a week “to ensure there is no religious practice within the household”.
If items such as prayer mats or religious books were found, someone was usually detained, said Aileen who asked to only be known by her first name to protect family members still living in China.
“Most people don’t keep Korans in their houses anymore,” she said.
In addition to “home stays”, local officials regularly dropped in on families unannounced to check they were not fasting or praying, Mr Erkin said.
Lectures on “socialist core values” were also frequently held to “greet Ramadan”, according to an article from Chinese state media Global Times published last year.
Mr Erkin described one such lecture in which a Government official instructed people not to use Muslim greetings such as salam mulakum, which means peace be upon you.
The main target of surveillance and detentions has been ethnic Uyghurs, one of several Muslim minorities living in China who have struggled for independence from China in the past.
While there is surveillance and some restrictions on religious practices in other regions of China, Aileen, who is now an Australian resident, said her family in Gansu were still allowed to fast and pray.
But in Xinjiang province, all Muslims have been subjected to detentions and bans on religious practices.
‘Fast from China’ campaign retaliation to ban
Within Xinjiang, Mr Erkin said the threat of arrests had created a climate of fear in which people “self censor” religious activity and were too afraid to even fast in their own homes.
Activists across the globe have called for a #FastFromChina in retaliation to the ban, calling on Muslims and human rights supporters to refrain from buying Chinese products in order to support China’s repressed Muslim minorities.
“China is the only place in the world where Muslims are not allowed to fast,” said a post on the Save Uighur website announcing the campaign.
“We are calling upon people who care for freedom of religion to not buy any Chinese products during the month of Ramadan.
“Ramadan is about consuming less and sharing more. So let’s fast from China in solidarity with those who cannot fast in China.”
Tweets and Facebook posts containing the hashtag #FastFromChina have been posted from many countries including the US, Australia, the UK and nations across the Middle East.
“This upcoming Ramadan, let’s not just fast from food and water, but also products made in China,” Uyghur-American Aydin Anwar wrote on Twitter.
“This will be a big step forward in challenging China’s genocide of Uyghurs and other Turkic people.”