A Chinese official who allegedly declined to smoke in front of Muslims in Xinjiang has been demoted for taking an “unstable political stance,” a state-run newspaper reported Tuesday.

Xinjiang, home to China's Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, restricts religious practices ─ such as growing beards, wearing headscarves, and fasting during Ramadan ─ that are seen as symbols of “Islamic extremism”.

A notice from the Hotan district government over the weekend accused Jelil Matniyaz, a village-level secretary for the ruling Communist party in the far-western region, of being afraid to smoke before religious figures.

“His behaviour of 'not daring' to smoke conforms with extreme religious thought in Xinjiang,” a local official told the Global Times newspaper.

He added that a dutiful party member would choose to smoke in front of religious believers in order to demonstrate his or her commitment to secularism.

Matniyaz's failure to do so meant that instead of “leading the fight against extreme religious thought,” he was “failing to confront the threat of extreme regional forces”, the official said.

Matniyaz was given a “stern warning”, stripped of his party secretary duties and downgraded from senior staff member to staff member.

Xinjiang has been racked for years by a series of violent attacks which Beijing blames on exiled Uighur separatist groups whom it says are aligned with foreign terrorist networks.

Rights groups have countered that unrest in the region is largely a response to repressive policies, and that tighter measures are counterproductive.

Uighurs, a traditionally Muslim group, complain of cultural and religious repression and discrimination. China introduced new anti-extremism legislation in Xinjiang late March, including a provision that bans “abnormal” beards.

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