BEIJING (Reuters) - A sweep on illegal religious activity in the capital of China's unruly far western region of Xinjiang has resulted in 82 children being "rescued" from unlicensed Islamic schools and the seizure of religious clothing, a state-run newspaper said on Saturday.
Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language, has been beset for years by violence that the Chinese government blames on Islamist militants and separatists.
Hundreds have died in violence in Xinjiang in the past 18 months, prompting a sweeping crackdown by the government, including on religious activities.
The latest campaign, in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, resulted not only in the "rescue" of the children from religious schools known as madrassas, but closure of 27 places used for "underground" preaching and detention of 44 illegal imams, the official Xinjiang Daily reported.
Children in Xinjiang are prohibited by the government from attending madrassas, prompting many parents who wish to provide a religious education to use underground schools.
Another 24 people were detained for preaching jihad, and nine others for promoting terrorism and religious extremism, the newspaper added.
Items of clothing seized included face veils for women and items printed with the moon and stars, the report said.
The crescent moon and star symbol of Islam features on many national flags, besides being used by groups China says want to set up an independent state called East Turkestan.
The report did not say when the sweep was carried out, only that it took place recently.
Other items seized included more than 17,000 illegal publications and audio-visual material used for promoting terror, the newspaper said. It provided no other details.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest, a claim Beijing denies.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said the targetting of places of worship would only make matters worse in Xinjiang.
"China believes that the religion and faith of the Uighur people threatens Beijing's rule," he said in an emailed comment. "Using such provocative suppression will provoke unrest."
Earlier this month, another city in Xinjiang banned people with head scarves, veils and long beards from boarding buses.
While many Uighur women dress in much the same casual style as those elsewhere in China, some have begun to wear the full veil, a garment more common in Pakistan or Afghanistan than in Xinjiang.
In Xinjiang, police have offered rewards for tip-offs on where "violent terrorism training" takes place and on individuals who grow long beards.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Richard Borsuk)