Reuters International

Two ethnic Uighur men walk in a clothing market in downtown Urumqi, Xinjiang province November 1, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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By Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Thursday there was no religious discrimination in the far-western region of Xinjiang and there would be no interference in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, despite criticism from rights groups.

Ramadan, which begins next week, is a sensitive time in Xinjiang, where deadly attacks in recent years blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants have left hundreds dead.

Authorities in Xinjiang in the past have stepped up controls on the practice of Islam followed by the Uighur ethnic minority during Ramadan. There has been criticism of people having been banned from worship and that restaurants had been forced to stay open.

Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan, during which many abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours.

"During the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, whether to close or open halal restaurants is completely determined by the owners themselves without interference," a government report on religious freedom in Xinjiang said.

"No citizen suffers discrimination or unfair treatment for believing in, or not believing in, any religion," the report said, adding that "religious feelings and needs are fully respected".

Those pledges appeared to be at odds with some local policies.

Legal and religious officials in Khorgos city, near the border with Kazakhstan, in late May ordered inspections of more than 30 ethnic restaurant operators and had them "guarantee normal business during Ramadan", a statement on the government's website said.

An official at the Khorgos government publicity department told Reuters he could not comment.

Rights groups and exiles say one of the major problems in Xinjiang is government controls on Uighur culture and Islam, which stoke ethnic tension, such as regulations banning overt signs of religious observance, like veils or beards.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, the main Uighur exile group, said in an email that the United States had a responsibility to pressure China to respect Uighurs' religious beliefs during bilateral talks in Beijing starting on Monday.

China's "lies could not cover up the truth" about its openly restrictive and prohibitive religious policies, he said.

Shoket Imin, a member of the ruling Communist Party's standing committee in Xinjiang, told reporters that children below the age of 18 must not go to mosques, a policy critics say is an attempt to weaken religious sentiment.

China says it protects freedom of religion, but it allows only state-recognised religious institutions to operate.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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