BEIJING Some local governments in China's unruly far western region of Xinjiang are stepping up controls on the Islamic faith followed by the Uighur people ahead of Ramadan, including making officials swear they will not fast.
The holy month, which begins this week, is a sensitive time in Xinjiang following an uptick in deadly attacks blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants over the past three years in which hundreds have died.
In recent days, state media and government websites in Xinjiang have published stories and official notices demanding that party members, civil servants, students and teachers in particular do not to observe Ramadan, something that happened last year too.
In Jinghe county near the Kazakh border, food safety officials decided last week that they would "guide and encourage" halal restaurants to stay open as normal during Ramadan, the government said on its website.
Those that do stay open would get fewer visits from food safety inspectors, it added.
Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan, during which many abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours.
Other government institutions have given similar instructions.
In Maralbexi county, where 21 died in violent unrest in 2013, party officials had to give verbal as well as written assurances "guaranteeing they have no faith, will not attend religious activities and will lead the way in not fasting over Ramadan", state media said.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including restrictions on religious practices, have provoked unrest, allegations denied by Beijing.
"China is increasing its bans and monitoring as Ramadan approaches. The faith of the Uighurs has been highly politicized, and the increase in controls could cause sharp resistance," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled Uighur group, the World Uyghur Congress, said in a statement.
Telephone calls to the Xinjiang government's spokesman seeking comment were not answered.
The government there has always denied trying to curb fasting, though officials and people younger than 18 are banned from participating in religious activities.
On Sunday, Xinjiang's Communist Party chief, Zhang Chunxian, warned that the region's stability faced "sustained pressure" from religious extremists.
China's Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but it maintains a tight grip on religious activities and allows only officially recognized religious institutions to operate.
China has around 20 million Muslims spread throughout the country, only a portion of which are Uighur, a Turkic-language speaking group that calls Xinjiang home.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)