BEIJING (Reuters) - Veils and head coverings represent a cultural reverse in western China's Xinjiang region, said the top Communist Party boss in Kashgar, the city the government describes as the "frontline" in its battle against religious extremism.
Kashgar and the surrounding areas of southern Xinjiang has suffered from some of the worst ethnic tensions in the region between the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority and majority Han Chinese.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest.
Hundreds have died in violence in recent years, many in southern, predominantly Uighur parts of Xinjiang. The government has also blamed attacks elsewhere in China, including Beijing, on Islamist militants from Xinjiang, and said separatists there seek to set up an independent state called East Turkestan.
Some Xinjiang cities have placed restrictions on Islamic dress, including the capital Urumqi, which banned the wearing of veils in public late last year.
"We have to take strides forward as a secular, modern country," Zeng Cun, the party secretary of the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, said on Saturday.
"But in some places in Kashgar from last year there are face veils and head coverings. This is equivalent to retreating back over the modern, secular strides we have taken. This is a cultural reverse," Zeng said in a rare interview with Reuters on the sidelines of an annual meeting of China's parliament.
Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam but many have begun adopting practices more commonly seen in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, such as full-face veils for women, as China has intensified a security crackdown in recent years.
"Kashgar is Xinjiang's frontline against terrorism," Zeng said, though he would not give details on the number of people who have died in or near Kashgar in recent incidents.
China has expressed concern about the rise of the Islamic State, nervous about the effect it could have on Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. Chinese leaders have warned that extremists have illegally left the country to fight on battlefields in Iraq and Syria.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Clelia Oziel)