Xinjiang's Communist Party boss joins China's Muslims in breaking the fast for end of Ramadan
Region's party chief joins a meal to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan after international criticism of China's religious policies
The Communist Party chief of the far western Xinjiang region has defended its religious policies, joining Muslim residents for a meal marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan in a move analysts said was in response to growing concerns over mainland limits on observing the holy month.
But some observers dismissed the Han official's gesture as a stunt that would do little to change the way the country's ethnic policies were perceived.
Xinjiang party boss Zhang Chunxian joined more than 200 Muslims at an unnamed scripture school for the Iftar meal on Friday night, the region's cybersecurity office said on Saturday night.
"It's the first time in Xinjiang's history that the region's top leaders have joined Muslims for Iftar," regional deputy party chief Shohrat Zakir was quoted as saying at the banquet.
Calling on attendees to uphold the fight against terrorists and separatists, Zhang said the constitution protected religious freedom. "Ramadan is the most precious month for Muslims … I would like to convey my best wishes to you and to all Muslims in Xinjiang," he said.
Zhang's attendance comes after a row between Beijing and Ankara over reports that party members, civil servants, students and teachers were told not to observe Ramadan in Xinjiang.
Turkey's foreign ministry voiced concerns late last month over the religious freedom of Uygur Muslims and hundreds of Turkish demonstrators protested against the bans. Beijing responded by saying that Xinjiang had no "ethnic problem".
Enze Han, a specialist in ethnic politics from SOAS, University of London, said Zhang's attendance was an official public relations effort in response to the international criticism.
Beijing-based ethnic affairs analyst Jiang Zhaoyong said Zhang wanted to show that senior officials respected the religious freedom of the Uygurs.
"[Zhang] has taken a brave step," Jiang said. "It's difficult for officials to draw a line between countering extremism and religious freedom given how complex ethnic and religious issues in Xinjiang are."
Professor Barry Sautman, a political scientist from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the move signaled that Beijing might be contemplating lifting some of the fasting restrictions, which had "caused them so many problems".
"It is so very unusual for a Han leader to attend an activity attached to Islam … It might signal a change [in ethnic policies]," Sautman said.
He said many pro-government Muslims also thought Beijing could not win the struggle against extremists and separatists by limiting religious freedom, and some of the officials, including Han officials, had taken those views seriously.
"[The bans] are from the idea decades ago … that some of the religious activities could expose people to the teachings that do involve extremism. So you just ban it all and hope for the best."
But Han said the one-off effort by Zhang could do little to change what Uygurs and the rest of the world thought of China's ethnic policies.
"The marginalisation [of Uygurs] has already occurred and his attendance cannot undo that," Han said.
"Ultimately what matters is the policies he implements."
Additional reporting by Reuters