BEIJING Ethnic traditions in Xinjiang must be respected, the top official in the restive far western region of China said, despite criticism that government policies there unfairly target the Muslim Uighur ethnic community.
The government must implement "ethnic unity education and propaganda" among all communities, especially among the region's youth, the ruling Communist Party's Xinjiang chief Zhang Chunxian said in comments carried in state media on Wednesday.
" must treat issues of local tradition with respect and resolve issues of violence with rule of law and severe measures," the official Xinjiang Daily cited Zhang as saying.
China has intensified a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang, further repressing Uighur culture, religious tradition and language, rights groups say, despite strong government assertions that it offers Uighurs wide-ranging freedoms.
In November, officials demanded that lawyers in Turpan, an oasis city southeast of the regional capital, Urumqi, commit to guaranteeing that relatives do not wear burqas, veils or participate in illegal religious activities, and that young men do not grow long beards.
Many Uighurs resent local policies imposed by the government and an inflow of Han Chinese migrants, and some Uighur groups are campaigning for an independent homeland for their people.
Experts say China's repression of religious practices has pushed some Uighurs to more strongly embrace Islamic traditions.
Zhang's pledge follows state media reports in early January that President Xi Jinping was shifting the region's focus to maintaining stability over development, after a series of attacks last year fuelled by what the government said was religious extremism.
" must acknowledge the long-term, acute and complex nature of the anti-separatism and violent terrorism fight," Zhang said, adding that there was no contradiction between stability and development.
At least 91 people, including several policemen, have been killed in violence in Xinjiang since April, state media reports.
Many rights groups and exiles say China exaggerates the militant threat to justify its firm grip on energy-rich Xinjiang, which abuts Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)