BEIJING – China is suppressing peaceful Muslim religious and cultural activities in its west under the guise of fighting terrorism, two U.S.-based human rights groups said Tuesday.
Comparing the situation to Tibet, a report by the two groups said Muslims in the Xinjiang region are "concerned for their cultural survival" amid a government-financed influx of settlers from China's Han ethnic majority.
Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang face "state-ordered discrimination and crackdowns," said Brad Adams, the director of Human Rights Watch (search), one of the groups.
"China has opportunistically used the post-September 11 environment to make the outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists," said the report by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China.
Beijing says it is fighting a violent guerrilla movement that wants to turn oil-rich, sparsely populated Xinjiang into an Islamic theocracy. But it has released little evidence to support its claims, and diplomats and foreign experts are skeptical.
Muslims in Xinjiang who worship in violation of state controls face harassment, fines, prison and torture, the report said.
"The situation is not dissimilar to Tibet, with the Chinese state attempting to refashion a religion to control an ethnic minority," Adams said in a press release announcing the report.
Beijing has used economic incentives to encourage Han settlers to move to both Xinjiang and Tibet in an effort to integrate them with the country's booming east.
"Much like Tibetans, the Uighurs in Xinjiang are concerned for their cultural survival in the face of a government-supported influx of ethnic Chinese migrants," the 114-page report said.
The report said the government tries to control all aspects of the Muslim faith in Xinjiang, picking clerics and the version of the Koran to use and deciding where and how to hold religious festivals.
The Chinese government has blamed separatists for what it says is a campaign of bombings and assassinations.
"Separatist sentiments are a reality in Xinjiang, though they provide no justification for the broad denial of basic rights," the report said.
Diplomats and foreign experts say most violence in Xinjiang blamed on separatists isn't politically motivated and appears to stem from personal disputes. Officials in Xinjiang say there has been no separatist-related violence in recent years.
In 2002, the United States listed the Xinjiang-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement (search) as a terror group — a classification that some believed was a concession to China in exchange for support of the American-led anti-terrorist campaign.
The report calls on Washington not to "acquiesce in any future demands from China to place organizations on lists of terrorist organizations without sufficient evidence."
The report also calls on China to allow U.N. human rights observers to visit Xinjiang and report on the state of religious freedom.