East Turkestan: China "smothering" Islam to control Uighurs
Beijing's "wholesale assault" on the Uighurs' faith ranged from vetting imams and closing mosques to detaining thousands every year and executions, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China said in a report released on Tuesday entitled "Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang".
"Systematic repression of religion continues in Xinjiang as a matter of considered state policy," said the report, based on previously undisclosed regulations and policies.
The groups echoed charges from other rights watchdogs that China was using the global war on terrorism to justify a widespread crackdown on Uighurs.
"China has opportunistically used the post-September 11 environment to make the outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists who have simply changed tactics," the report said.
Uighurs make up 8 million of the 19 million people in Xinjiang and many favour greater autonomy for the area. Some separatists have been fighting for 150 years to make the region an independent homeland they would call East Turkestan.
"Islam is perceived as feeding Uighur ethnic identity, and the subordination of Islam to the state is used as a means to ensure the subordination of Uighurs as well."
Chinese government officials were not immediately available to comment.
Citing internal government and Communist Party documents, the report said China had an official manual for regulating religion in Xinjiang that used vague phrasing and wide-reaching policies to back many forms of repression.
"Religious regulation in Xinjiang is so pervasive that it creates a legal net that can catch just about anyone the authorities want to target," Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, was quoted as saying in a statement on the report's release.
Laws banning the disclosure of information about policies towards minorities and religion, even those with no connection to national security, kept repressive regulations hidden from the public, the report said.
China has previously denied accusations that it suppresses Islam in Xinjiang by saying it only wants to stop the forces of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism in the region.
New national rules that took effect on March 1 enshrine religious belief as a basic right of all citizens, although China still forbids worship outside designated religious organisations.
What effect the new rules would have in Xinjiang and across China was not clear, the report said, adding that the rules had "understated aims" of bringing all religions under closer control and making it even harder for unapproved religious bodies and places of worship to operate.