XINJIANG - Adding more pressures on Uighur Muslims, Chinese authorities have placed China's flag at the head of a mosque in western China, a move denounced by activists as an attempt to get unwavering allegiance to Beijing ahead of their faith.
They are essentially saying the flag is higher than religion, Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur rights advocate, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday, September 18.
They placed the flag at a very sensitive place in the mosque.
The controversy started when Chinese placed the Chinese flag over the mihrab, the traditional prayer niche that points the direction to Makkah, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region's Aksu.
With millions of Muslims praying while facing Makkah, Tohti said that the Chinese law and authorities demand unwavering allegiance to Beijing.
Moreover, he criticized the move as an effort to dilute the religious environment in the area, where minority Uighurs often complain of ethnic and religious repression.
Chinese authorities have been imposing stifling restrictions on Uighur Muslims to practice their religion.
Restrictions included barring Muslim women from wearing Hijab in Public places.
The authorities have also barred students under 18 from fasting during Ramadan. More restrictions were also imposed on people trying to attend prayers at mosques.
Uighur Muslims are a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
Xinjiang, which activists call East Turkestan, has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of massive security crackdowns by Chinese authorities.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of counter terrorism.
Muslims accuse the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.
Analysts say the policy of transferring Han Chinese to Xinjiang to consolidate Beijing's authority has increased the proportion of Han in the region from five percent in the 1940s to more than 40 percent now.
Analysts view the new religious restrictions as an attempt from Beijing to secure its business inroads in Central Asia.
China is opening up its foreign affairs to the West, Tohti said.
They hope not to have any problems as they expand their influence, especially not in Xinjiang. They are worried about this danger.
China's efforts to promote calm in a region that is key to its economic endeavors appear to be two-pronged.
The government has also engaged in a protracted crackdown on what Beijing calls violent Uighur separatists.
Last August, at least 12 Uighurs had been killed in a raid in western Xinjiang raising the August death toll to 34.
In April, 21 people were killed in clashes in the heavily ethnic Uighur part of Xinjiang near the old Silk Road city of Kashgar.
Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, was also the scene of deadly violence in July 2009 when the mainly Muslim Uighur minority vented resentment over Chinese restrictions in the region, at least 184 people were killed
In the following days, mobs of angry ethnic Han took to the streets looking for revenge in the worst ethnic violence that China had seen in decades.
Chinese authorities had convicted about 200 people, mostly Uighurs, over the riots and sentenced 26 of them to death.
Beijing views the vast region of Xinjiang as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asia and its large oil and gas reserves.
Despite all these efforts, Uighurs see that China could succeed in bringing calm to the area only by protecting Muslim Uighurs' freedoms.
If China really believes Uighurs are part of the country, then meet your responsibility to them, Tohti said.
Uighurs are impoverished and have no rights. China needs to improve their living standards.