China is rejecting findings by two international human-rights groups that it is practicing widespread religious repression against its main Muslim minority group. The groups say Beijing is using the war on terrorism as an excuse to suppress ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province.
In a joint report, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China say Beijing has systematically stifled how eight-million minority Muslim Uighurs practice their religion.
The report, based on Chinese government documents and interviews, says authorities exercise extensive religious control in the oil-rich northwestern Xinjiang region, including approving Islamic clerics and monitoring mosques. It says authorities control how religious holidays are celebrated, which version of Koran can be used and restricts Uighurs from wearing religious articles in state schools.
But China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang Tuesday says people of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, in compliance with the constitution, enjoy all civil rights, including freedom of religious beliefs.
Chinese law contains references to freedom of religion, but human rights groups say the policy pertains only to state sanctioned religions.
The rights groups also say Beijing has stepped up its harassment of the Turkish-speaking Uighurs under the guise of the global war on terrorism, accusing some activists of being terrorists.
Nicolas Becquelin, research director of Human Rights in China, says Beijing is suppressing Islam for fear that it would turn into a force for Uighur separatism.
"They [China] see Islam and religion as [a] basis for distinct ethnic identity, and what the Chinese government wants to do is just to erase this identity because they think it is dangerous to national unity," he said.
The rights report says unapproved ways of practicing Islam are considered "separatist" activities and offenders are arrested, tortured and sometimes executed.
Mr. Becquelin says China's crackdown could lead to further unrest.
"What the government is doing is not only marginalizing Uighurs, potentially radicalizing some of them, but also pitting communities against each other," explained Mr. Becquelin. "The Uighurs see the Chinese more and more as repressive invaders and the Chinese see the Uighurs as dangerous, potential separatists and terrorists."
Uighurs have long opposed Chinese rule over the region. In the 1990s, Xinjiang was rocked by demonstrations and bombings blamed on Uighur separatists.