For Uighur Muslims in China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang, observing Ramadan – a month-long period of introspection, fasting, prayer, and devotion – is difficult, if not impossible. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) strongly urges the Chinese government to end all restrictions on Uighur Muslims’ religious practices and activities, including limitations on Ramadan observance, and honor their right to genuine freedom of religion or belief.
“The Chinese government repeatedly has insisted that Uighur Muslims obey the state over the dictates of their own conscience,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George. “This insistence undermines the very foundation of religious freedom, a freedom enshrined in China’s constitution. China cannot succeed among the global community of nations if it violates the fundamental rights of its own citizens.”
Already in 2015, the Chinese government has required Muslim store owners in parts of Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes, in conflict with their religious beliefs and traditions. Last year, longstanding bans on fasting during Ramadan for Uighur Muslim students, teachers, professors, and government employees were more stringently and widely enforced than in previous years, with some local officials reportedly holding banquets to test Muslims’ adherence to the prohibition. Daily prayer and certain religious identity markers, such as the veil for women or beards for men, also have been banned in many areas.
Religious freedom and related human rights have deteriorated rapidly, especially in the Muslim majority autonomous region in recent years. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has used heavy-handed and indiscriminate measures against Uighur Muslims, resulting in a dramatic increase in arrests for offenses such as attending unregistered mosques or Islamic schools, fasting during Ramadan, or criticizing Chinese government policies. In September 2014, professor and peaceful Uighur advocate Ilham Tohti was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for alleged “separatism.”
“Each year, Beijing and regional authorities use the peaceful observance of Ramadan as an excuse to intensify its already strict control and repression of Uighur Muslims,” said George. “The non-violent expression of religious belief must be protected, and the United States and international community should press China to respect freedom of religion or belief for all.”
In 2015, USCIRF again recommended China be designated as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act for its particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The State Department has designated China as a CPC since 1999, most recently in July 2014.