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Ramadan a challenge for China's Muslims

While many are able to celebrate Ramadan in traditional ways, others choose not to and some are faced with attempts by local governments to prevent them from doing so.

BEIJING // Before first light during Ramadan, He Xiying will eat noodles and mantou, a wheat-based steamed bun, both of which are staple foods in north China.

Ms He, 52, a retired clothing factory worker who lives in the capital, said she also sometimes eats rice, which is more popular in southern China, for her suhoor meal.

"Usually I will eat things that will keep me from being hungry in the morning," she said.

At Beijing's Niujie Mosque, which traces its history back more than 1,000 years, the iftar meal to end the fast at sunset includes round-shaped pastries similar to mooncakes, the sweets eaten during Chinese festivals, as well as less-characteristically Chinese foods such as Swiss roll.

While Ms He, a member of China's Hui Muslim minority, fasts during Ramadan, her 24-year-old son, Ding Ruihe, does not. This reflects a pattern that is not uncommon, as some younger Muslims who work full time tend not to take part.

"It's because I am busy with work," said Mr Ding, a hairdresser who, nonetheless, visits the mosque during the Holy Month.

Similarly, the restaurants in the city's Muslim area to the south-west are open throughout the day during Ramadan, although there are fewer customers.

For Ding Yulan, 78, also a Hui Muslim, fasting is impractical because of illness linked to her age, but she is keen to mark the Holy Month by good deeds.

"I give money to those who beg. I do that at other times too but in Ramadan, I give more," said the mother-of-four.

While many Hui Muslims in Beijing adhere to the traditions of Ramadan even though they are a minority in the capital, there is controversy over measures by the authorities in the western province of Xinjiang to discourage observance among Uighur Muslims.

Citing health concerns, local governments have told officials and students to eat and drink during the day and have said Muslim restaurants must remain open.

While the Xinjiang authorities have reportedly restricted observance of Ramadan practices before, this year's crackdown is "very strong", according to Dolkun Isa, the chairman of the executive committee of the World Uyghur Congress. He said many people tried to hide the fact they were fasting.

The congress, which represents a number of overseas Uighur advocacy groups, opposes Beijing's rule in Xinjiang, with officials having previously described Chinese in the area as "colonists".

"It's not new, but this year the Chinese government and the local government has published new regulations and is trying to stop religious activities," said Mr Isa.

The authorities are providing lunch for teachers in some schools during Ramadan, he added, something they would not normally do, as a way of testing whether individuals were fasting. Those found to be abstaining from eating risk losing their jobs, he said.

By restricting observance of Ramadan among Muslims, Mr Isa said China was breaching its own constitution, which guarantees freedom of worship.

The crackdown has echoes of events in December last year when Xinjiang's Dunmaili district posted an online notice ordering residents not to wear veils or other Muslim clothing, such as kandura and abaya-like robes.

There have long been tensions between China's majority Han people and Xinjiang's nine million largely Muslim Uighurs, many of whom feel economically disadvantaged and shut out from jobs with major companies.

In July 2009, frustrations erupted into riots in the provincial capital, Urumqi after a confrontation between Uighur protesters and police, resulting in 197 deaths of Han and Uighur people, according to official figures.

If the authorities become more repressive, they could provoke further violence, said Ding Xueliang, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

He researched issues linked to China's minorities while working in Beijing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"[Ramadan] is the most important [festival] for Muslims," he said. "If they do not engage in political actions, why bother them? Let them do what they want to do. It is really a sad situation."

To defuse tensions, Mr Ding believes the authorities should improve the job prospects of Uighurs. By targeting religious traditions, he believes officials risk increasing disenchantment among the Turkic minority.

"Some of the resentments could be reduced by some kind of government policy to help minority individuals to get more of a share of economic opportunities," he said.

Having a less fraught relationship with the authorities, China's Hui Muslims are able to enjoy Ramadan as a time to celebrate their sense of community.

Ma Zhijun, 62, an administrator at the Niujie Mosque, said "Muslims from around Beijing" visit for iftar. The mosque has dozens of boxes of food, marked as halal with the seal of a Muslim food company, delivered for worshippers in the evening.

"I enjoy it, it feels harmonious," she said of iftar at the mosque. "Muslims are one big family."


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Updated: August 8, 2012 04:00 AM