Uyghur Muslims in China’s western territory of Xinjiang have largely refrained from participating in traditional religious rituals associated with the Islamic holiday of Ramadan such as dawn-to-dusk fasting and increased prayer over the past month due to the Chinese government’s crackdown on Islam in the region.
Associated Press (AP) reporters traveled to Xinjiang in late April as part of a foreign press trip organized by the Chinese government to document current conditions in the territory. The trip coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which lasts from April 12 to May 12 this year. Islam requires Muslims to pray five times a day and encourages its adherents to attend special nightly prayers during Ramadan. AP reporters who visited the city of Kashgar during the April trip said Thursday they saw so few people in attendance at mosques in the city of Kashgar during regular prayer times in the middle of Ramadan that they concluded “Islam is on the decline” in Xinjiang.
“A decade ago, 4,000 to 5,000 people attended Friday prayers at the Id Kah Mosque in the historic Silk Road city of Kashgar,” the AP wrote on May 6. “Now only 800 to 900 do, said the mosque’s imam, Mamat Juma. He attributed the drop to a natural shift in values, not government policy, saying the younger generation wants to spend more time working than praying.”
While China’s ruling Communist Party is officially atheist, the Chinese constitution officially grants citizens “freedom of religious belief.” Chinese law allows people to observe Chinese state Catholicism (independent of the Vatican), non-denominational Protestantism (the “Three-Self Patriotic Church”), Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities frequently interfere with and inhibit the regular practice of religion in Chinese daily life, however, particularly targeting Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Muslims.
“Freedom of religion in China is defined as the freedom to believe — or not believe. It was a mantra repeated by many who spoke to the foreign journalists [in April]: It’s not just that people have the right to fast or pray, they also have the right not to fast or pray,” the AP reported on Thursday.
The AP’s reference to China’s definition of religious freedom echoes that espoused by a Xinjiang police officer during an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA) on April 19.
The police officer — based in Toqquzaq township, located within Kashgar’s Kona Sheher county — spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity “out of fear of reprisal” from the CCP. He said CCP authorities recently told local residents, “people can fast if they want to [during Ramadan],” but individuals who prefer not to “don’t have a religious responsibility to do so.”
“[They say] it’s fine for people to practice religion at the lawful place where religious activities are allowed, and that we have never restricted anything,” the officer said, referring to government-sanctioned houses of worship, such as CCP-approved mosques.
“They told people they can fast if they want now that it’s Ramadan, that they are free to fast or not, and that they can practice religion at religious activities and gatherings,” the police officer added.
RFA’s April 19 report indicated CCP authorities had attempted to ease historic restrictions on Islamic practice in Xinjiang during Ramadan this year in response to a recent global backlash to its mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims in the region. In addition to extralegally detaining 1-3 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang — such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz people — in concentration camps since about 2017, the CCP has implemented a crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs’ Islamic religious customs over the past three to four years, especially during Ramadan.
“Open or even private displays of religious affiliation – including growing an ‘abnormal’ beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting or avoidance of alcohol – are categorized as ‘signs of extremism’ in some locations [of Xinjiang during Ramadan],” Amnesty International reported in May 2019.
“Any of these [offenses] can land you in one of Xinjiang’s internment camps, which the government calls ‘transformation-through-education centers’ and are reportedly arbitrarily detaining up to 1 million people,” the human rights organization noted.
“Numerous counties in Xinjiang have posted notices on government websites in recent years, stating that primary and secondary school students and Communist Party members were not permitted to observe Ramadan,” according to the report.