China is discouraging some Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang from fasting during Ramadan.
The government says the move is motivated by health concerns, but others said today that it's a risky campaign to
secularise the Muslim minority.
Several city, county and village governments in Xinjiang have posted notices on their websites banning or discouraging
Communist Party members, civil servants, students and teachers from fasting during the religious holiday.
Muslims around the world abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk during the 30-day period.
Regional spokeswoman Hou Hanmin was quoted in the state-run Global Times newspaper on Saturday as saying authorities encourage people to "eat properly for study and work" but don't force anyone to eat during Ramadan.
Xinjiang is home to the traditionally Muslim Uighur ethnic group. Long-simmering resentment among Uighurs over rule by China's Han majority and an influx of migrants has sporadically erupted into violence.
Separatist sentiment is rife, with some Uighurs advocating armed rebellion. A smaller fringe has been radicalised by militant calls for Muslim holy war and trained in camps across the border in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In July 2009, rioting between Uighurs and Han Chinese killed nearly 200 people in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi. Uighur
activists say the riots were the result of decades of pent-up frustration with Chinese rule.
China has responded by boosting police presence and restricting the practice of Islam moves that have further alienated many Uighurs and ratcheted up tensions.
Over the last few months, authorities in Xinjiang have stepped up a campaign against illegal religious schools, which
they believe are fomenting extremism and separatist thought.
Hou, the regional spokeswoman, said battling religious extremism and terror in the region remains a priority. "Religious extremism is closely related to violence and terrorism, and cracking down on these is one of our top priorities," Hou was quoted as saying.
Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-based Uighur economist, said restricting participation in Ramadan is not new in Xinjiang but authorities are enforcing the limits more strictly this year, with some areas requiring people to sign pledges that
they won't take part in religious activities.