The Chinese government has destroyed thousands of mosques over the past three months in the restive Xinjiang region in Beijing’s latest attempt to “rectify” the largely Muslim population there, RFA’s Uyghur Service has learned.
Under the “Mosque Rectification” campaign launched by the Chinese Central Ethnic-Religious Affairs Department and overseen by the local police, the mosques were demolished as a way to sort out dilapidated buildings that allegedly posed a safety threat for worshippers in the Uyghur Autonomous Region, officials told RFA.
“Convincing the people that one of the purposes for demolishing the mosques was for the safety of the worshipers was a bit difficult,” said Eysajan Yaqup, a police officer in Toqquzaq township. “Some of them laughed at us when we explained the purpose, and some of them stared at us to show their disagreement.”
Eysajan Yaqup said he and other officials ignored the laughter and the stares and “most of the prayers were silenced.”
“We successfully completed our duty within three months,” he said.
China estimates that it is home to 23 million Muslims, although some independent sources claim as many as 50 million Muslims live in the country.
Beijing blames Uyghur extremists for a string of violent attacks and clashes in recent years. But critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts "strike hard” campaigns that include random, nighttime police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including clothing and personal appearance.
The government also employs an army of religious affairs officials whose job it is to impose strict limits on all forms of religious worship, and to crack down on faith-based activities that haven't submitted to government regulation.
‘We demolished nearly 70 percent of mosques in the city.’
Officials in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) confirmed that a rectification campaign had been carried out in the city, saying that most of mosques in Kashgar were demolished for the purpose of ensuring stability and protecting the safety of the Muslims.
While government officials refused to say how many mosques were demolished, an investigation by RFA’s Uyghur Service indicated that around 5,000 mosques were destroyed over the three months of the campaign.
RFA listener Abduraxman Abdurehim, a Uyghur refugee living in Turkey, said villagers from his home town told him that that 70 percent of the mosques in Lenger township were demolished in the campaign
His account was backed up by local officials and villagers in Kashgar, Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) and Asku (in Chinese, Akesu).
While other listeners told RFA the rectification campaign encompassed the entire region, RFA was only able to independently confirm the destruction of mosques in those three areas.
Wang Jingfu, head of Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee in Kashgar City, told RFA that the government was acting out of safety concerns because many of the mosques were antiquated.
“We launched the rectification campaign with the purpose of protecting the safety of the worshippers because all the mosques were too old,” he said. “We demolished nearly 70 percent of mosques in the city, because there were more than enough mosques and some were unnecessary.”
‘It’s all just a slogan’
Hajim Yusup, the deputy police chief in Toqquzaq county’s Mush township said 46 of the 65 mosques in his town were demolished.
“The demolition was carried out and organized by the Ethnic and Religious Committee of the county, we just watched in case there was any opposition,” he said. “Fortunately, almost nothing happened in our township during the campaign.”
The deputy committee chief, who said his name is Ghulamidin, told RFA that government officials explained to religious leaders and residents why the mosques needed to be destroyed.
“Before we launched the campaign, we went to villages in the city and conducted a conversation with religious figures and residents to patiently explain the importance of the rectification campaign,” he said. “The residents agreed to the order issued by central government, I believe we did nothing wrong in this campaign.”
The residents may have agreed, but they weren’t fooled by the reason behind the campaign.
“Rectifying or standardizing, it’s all just a slogan,” said the teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The truth is it is a demolishing.”
To the teacher the rectification campaign is all part of Beijing’s attempts to subjugate the Uyghur population.
“It is part of the campaign to eliminate so-called religious extremism,” the teacher said. “First the authorities jailed all the young men who could oppose such a policy with the strike-hard campaign that started May 2014, then the authorities implemented new rules to punish rumor spreaders and now this campaign to demolish mosques.”
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.