- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
See something, say something — even a child practicing religion?
That’s what China is telling citizens in the majority-Muslim northwestern region of Xinjiang. New education rules released Wednesday encourage people to inform on parents who send their kids to religious schools or “coerce” them to practice religion.
Officially, China guarantees the right to freedom of religion but also stipulates that religious activities should not disrupt public order or interfere with the education system. The Communist Party carefully regulates religious activities, including religious education, and generally discourages minors from becoming believers.
Such restrictions are particularly severe in Xinjiang, where almost half the population are ethnic Uighur Muslims. In recent years, restrictions on cultural and religious activities have stoked resentment and led to unrest, including attacks on police, train stations, and markets.
The state has tried many methods to tamp down its Uighur minority, including recently banning headscarves and beards, forbidding students and state workers to fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and cracking down on underground Koranic schools. Two years ago officials began a longer-term strategy by encouraging intermarriage between ethnic Chinese and Uighurs with cash incentives, hoping to dilute Muslim communities over generations.
The new education rules, set to go into effect on Nov. 1, say parents cannot “organize, lure or force minors into attending religious activities,” or force them to wear religious dress or symbols. Parents are also forbidden to “abet, coerce, attract, or tolerate minors’ participation in terrorism, extremism, and underground scripture studies,” which essentially gives Beijing carte blanche to determine what is and what isn’t extremist behavior. If parents are caught encouraging religion, “any group or person has the right to stop these kinds of behaviors and report them to the public security authorities.”
China denies abuse or suppression of the Uighur community and insists it fully protects minority rights. It blames recent unrest in the region on Islamic extremists. In 2014 China sentenced prominent Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti to life in prison on separatism charges. But outside the country he’s been called “China’s Mandela” for his work promoting Uighur rights and was awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals human rights defenders award on Tuesday.
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