March 11, 2015 / 5:53 PM / 2 years ago

U.N. official calls China's crackdown on Uighurs 'disturbing'

GENEVA (Reuters) - A U.N. human rights investigator on Wednesday criticized China's crackdown on the Muslim Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang, citing "disturbing stories" of harassment and intimidation against the ethnic minority.

Xinjiang has been roiled by ethnic tensions between the Uighurs and majority Han Chinese. Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest.

Heiner Bielefeldt, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, told a news briefing China's actions against the Uighurs were "a major problem".

"I heard, also, very disturbing stories about harassment, for instance, intimidation during Ramadan -- children in schools were expected to break their fasting on Ramadan," he said, referring to the month-long religious holiday when observant Muslims do not eat during the day.

Some Xinjiang cities have placed restrictions on Islamic dress, including the capital, Urumqi, which banned the wearing of veils in public late last year.

Bielefeldt said there has been no progress on his office's outstanding request to conduct an official visit to China, which was last agreed on in 2004.

Bielefeldt also criticized China for wanting to control the reincarnation of Tibetan monks, saying Beijing was "really destroying the autonomy of religious communities, poisoning the relationship between different sub-groups, creating schisms, pitching off people against each other in order to exercise control".

His comments came two days after the Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet said the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama is profaning Buddhism by suggesting that he will not be reincarnated when he dies.

Activists have criticized China for using its war on terrorism in Xinjiang to crack down on Uighurs. Hundreds have died in violence in recent years in the predominantly Uighur parts of Xinjiang. The government has blamed attacks elsewhere in China, including Beijing, on Islamist militants from Xinjiang. It says separatists there want to set up an independent state called East Turkestan.

On Tuesday, the Communist Party boss of Xinjiang said Chinese extremists have joined the Islamic State jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq and authorities have broken up gangs that returned from the Middle East.

Bielefeldt said he believed Beijing's crackdown on freedom of religion stemmed from nervousness from an "authoritarian" government of people coming together "outside of official channels".

"The Chinese government is a superpower in many regards but is weak in terms of democratic legitimacy," he said.

Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Larry King

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