BEIJING (Reuters) - A county in the heavily Muslim southern part of China's unruly region of Xinjiang has held a beer festival in the run-up to the holy month of Ramadan, the government said, in what an exiled group called an open provocation.
Ramadan is a sensitive time in Xinjiang in China's far west after an uptick in attacks over the past three years, in which hundreds have died, blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.
State media and Xinjiang government websites have published stories and official notices again this year demanding that Communist Party members, civil servants, students and teachers in particular do not observe Ramadan and do not fast.
The beer festival happened in a village in Niya County in the deep south of Xinjiang, which is overwhelmingly populated by the Muslim Uighur people who call Xinjiang home. Muslims are not meant to consume alcohol, according to the Koran.
The Niya government website said the "beer competition", which happened last Monday just before the start of Ramadan, was attended by more than 60 young farmers and herders.
It showed pictures of women dancing in front of a stage and a line of men downing as much beer as they could in one minute. At least was wearing a traditional Uighur skull cap.
"This beer competition was varied and entertaining," the government said, noting that there were cash awards of up to 1,000 yuan ($161) for competition winners.
The article was picked up on the regional government's news website early on Sunday.
"Its aim was to use modern culture to brighten up the village's cultural life, squeeze the space for illegal religious promotion ... and guarantee the village's harmony and stability," the website said.
It quoted one villager as saying: "This activity that's been organized is great, livening up the busy farming seasons and banishing our tiredness. I'm going to drink up, and I'll definitely get a top prize to take home and make my wife happy."
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled group the World Uyghur Congress, condemned the event.
"This is an open provocation to the Islamic faith," he said in an emailed statement.
Reuters was unable to reach the Niya government for comment.
China's Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion but it maintains a tight grip on religious activities and allows only officially recognized institutions to operate.
China has around 20 million Muslims throughout the country, only a portion of which are Uighur.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait