China punishes Xinjiang official for openly practising faith

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has reprimanded 15 Xinjiang officials for violations that include adhering to religious faith, state media said on Tuesday, amid a crackdown on what the government calls illegal religious activities in the unruly western region.

One official in the southern city of Kashgar, where a state-backed imam was killed last month, had "worshipped openly", the official Xinhua news agency said, behaviour which violated rules that state workers not be religious. "The punishment of expulsion from public office was handed to (the official) surnamed Mai who violated the clear regulation that state workers must not have religious faith," Xinhua said, citing the city's Uighur mayor Ainiwaer Tuerxun. Mr Mai had "remained devout and incorrigible, and had a poor attitude," the report added.

Another official was punished, according to Xinhua, for having "ambiguous understanding and attitudes, sluggish action, and ineffective implementation toward counter-terrorism operations".

Punishments for violations, which included spreading information that was harmful to ethnic unity, ranged from expulsion from government positions to stern warnings. All of the officials were from Kashgar, an old Silk Road city with a largely Uighur population, though the abbreviated surnames given by Xinhua made their ethnicities unclear.

Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language, has been beset for years by violence that the Chinese government blames on Islamist militants and separatists.

Tensions are running high in Xinjiang, after officials told Muslims to eschew religious customs during the fasting month of Ramadan, which rights groups saw as an bid to repress Uighurs.

Hundreds have died in violence in Xinjiang in the past 11/2 years, prompting a sweeping crackdown by authorities.

Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest, a claim Beijing denies.

State media reported last week that authorities in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi closed 27 places used for "underground" preaching and detained 44 illegal imams as part of an operation to "rescue" 82 children from religious schools known as madrassas.

China punishes the study of Islam outside the confines of tightly controlled state mosques and children are prohibited from attending madrassas, prompting many parents who wish to provide a religious education to use underground schools.

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