The custom of women wearing face veils is not a welcome tradition but a symbol of extremism and backwardness, said a senior Chinese official on Thursday.
In unusually strong remarks, Xaukat Emen, a member of the Xinjiang Communist Party, said that face coverings and other Muslim garb are not traditions of minority people in China's western area of Xinjiang or any Muslim country for that matter.
Energy-rich Xinjiang is strategically located on the borders of Central Asia and is home to the Uighur population, an ethnic group of Muslims who speak a dialect of Turkish. The Chinese government has stepped up curbs on religious clothing in the region, where it blames Islamist separatists for violence that has killed hundreds of people over the past few years.
Many Xinjiang experts say the outlawing of veils and strict enforcement of the rules could further stigmatize the region's Uighurs.
Last year, Karamay, a northwestern city in Xinjiang, banned people wearing head scarves, veils or long beards from boarding buses. Authorities in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi have also banned the wearing of Islamic veils in public.
"Wearing face veils and gowns is neither a tradition of minority Uighur people nor that of Muslim or other Arab countries. It is completely a costume of extremism, which is being taken advantage of," Emen, who is a Uighur himself, told a news conference in Beijing.
In some cases, men had worn the veil to kidnap children, he added.
"A people who totally cover both their eyes are certainly a backward people. We Uighurs do not want to see our female comrades wear this type of clothing," he said.
Xaukat Emen added that the government was committed to supporting religious rights in Xinjiang, especially those relating to important festivals such as Eid and the fasting month of Ramadan.
"All the people enjoy religious freedom, and the normal religious practices of believers are protected by law. Any institution, organisation and individual is not allowed to interfere," he said.
Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam, but many have begun adopting practices more common in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, such as full-face veils for women, as China has stepped up the security crackdown of recent years.
Exiles and many rights groups trace the real cause of the unrest to China's heavy-handed policies, including suppressing the open practice of Islam and the culture and language of the Uighurs. China denies trying to repress the Uighurs.
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