BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s Foreign Ministry denied restricting religious freedom on Wednesday in a sharp response to Turkey for voicing concern over reports that ethnic Uighur muslims had been banned from worship and fasting during Ramadan.
Some local governments in China’s far western region of Xinjiang have stepped up controls on the Islamic faith followed by the Turkic Uighur people ahead of and during Ramadan, including restrictions on fasting.
Turkey’s foreign ministry said it had been “saddened” by these reports and passed its concern on to the Chinese ambassador in Ankara.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China wanted to have a good relationship with Turkey.
“China has already demanded that Turkey clarify these reports and we have expressed concern about the statement from the Turkish foreign ministry,” Hua told a daily news briefing.
“You should know that all the people of Xinjiang enjoy the freedom of religious belief accorded to them by the Chinese constitution,” she added.
“We of course hope that the Turkish side can meet China halfway and ensure the smooth development of ties.”
The holy month of Ramadan is a sensitive time in Xinjiang following a rise in attacks blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants over the past three years and hundreds have died in the violence.
Last month, state media and government websites in Xinjiang published stories and official notices demanding that party members, civil servants, students and teachers in particular do not to observe Ramadan, something that also happened last year.
Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan, with many abstaining from eating and drinking during daylight hours.
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 Simon Cameron-Moore