Uyghurs in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region say that authorities are continuing a campaign to destroy mosques as part of a wider crackdown on their religion, contradicting a recent comment by a Chinese diplomat that the region has more mosques per capita than other countries.
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom since 2009, wrote in a letter to the Financial Times on Aug. 20 that there are 24,400 mosques in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in response to recent news reports, including an earlier one in that newspaper, about the worsening human rights situation there.
“Normal religious activities are protected by law,” he wrote about Xinjiang.
The XUAR accounts for one-sixth of China’s land and is home to roughly 23 million people from several ethnic minority groups, the largest of which are the Uyghurs — a predominantly Muslim community with ties to central Asia, whose number exceeds 11 million.
But Liu failed to mention, however, the ongoing demolition of mosques that began in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) and in Hoten (in Chinese Hetian) in 2017 as part of a “rectification” campaign launched by Chinese authorities and overseen by local police.
During the campaign, authorities demolished thousands of mosques to “rectify” the largely Muslim population, claiming that they were sorting out dilapidated buildings that posed a safety threat to worshippers in a bid to standardize and regulate the mosques.
Though government officials in December 2016 refused to say how many mosques were destroyed, an investigation by RFA’s Uyghur Service indicated that around 5,000 mosques were demolished over the three months.
The secretary of Baghcha Village in Toqsu (Xinhe) county of Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, who did not give his name, told RFA last week that only one mosque of a total of five in Baghcha alone remain after authorities tore them down.
“We used to have mosques in every neighborhood and village [in Toqsu county] but not anymore,” he said. “There used to be five mosques in five neighborhoods [in Baghcha village]; now we have only one big mosque.”
An official from Toqsu’s Yultuzbagh Bazar who is overseeing the demolition said there were previously about 120 mosques in 17 communes in his village, with 20 mosques in the commune where he lives.
“[But] now nine or 10 remain, the rest have been knocked down,” said the official who did not give his name.
“There used to be a mosque on the main road, which was demolished and replaced by a residential building last year,” he said, adding that of the three large mosques that stood in his village, only one is left.
Buildings replace mosques
Two mosques that were demolished in 2017 in Hotan prefecture’s Ilchi village had been replaced by an underwear factory owned by a mainland Chinese company and an entertainment center for district residents, said a village official in charge of religious issues.
The Top Eriq mosque in Tosqa county, Aksu prefecture, was replaced by a residential building, while the county’s Gulbagh mosque was replaced by residential apartments, he said.
The destruction of mosques is part of China’s larger crackdown on Uyghurs, which also includes bans on religious acts, monitoring by authorities who living in Uyghur homes, the use of surveillance apps on mobile phones, and the installation of facial recognition cameras.
In July, the Financial Times reported that the world’s largest maker of security cameras was supplying nearly 1,000 facial recognition cameras for installation at the entrances of mosques in a county in southern XUAR to monitor activity in Muslim communities.
In addition to the heavy surveillance, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are being held in political "re-education camps" where authorities indoctrinate them in the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s teachings and try to force them to reject their religious beliefs.
Religious, cultural suppression
Uyghurs have complained of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule in Xinjiang, and especially in Kashgar prefecture — an area heavily populated by Uyghurs.
Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, who has ruled the XUAR since August 2016, has initiated several harsh policies targeting the religious freedom of Uyghurs, including banning fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Authorities in Kashgar prefecture implemented a new policy in June 2017 to control mosques by turning the religious buildings into centers for disseminating political propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party, local sources said at the time.
Under the directive, caretakers of mosques are required to fly the national flag of China atop the buildings.
Later that year, authorities in Kashgar launched an anti-religion propaganda drive through local police stations, whose officers rolled out the campaign to prefecture residents in a bid to undermine their Islamic faith, sources told RFA.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.