Historic Kashgar mosque open for tourists, but not worshipers

Authorities begin to sell tickets to visitors, but Uyghurs not allowed to pray except for special days.
By Shohret Hoshur for RFA Uyghur
2023.07.03
Historic Kashgar mosque open for tourists, but not worshipers An elderly Uyghur walks outside the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, before prayers marking Eid al-Fitr, June 26, 2017.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Chinese authorities have begun selling tickets to tourists to visit the historic Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar – where they have prohibited Muslim Uyghurs from praying for years except for certain holy days and for propaganda purposes, officials in the ancient city in Xinjiang said.

The mosque has been mostly closed for worship since 2016 amid a severe crackdown by Chinese authorities on the religion and culture of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in a bid to stamp out religious extremism China believed to be behind terrorist attacks.

Information about the issuance of tickets to visit the mosque first circulated last week on the Chinese short-video platform Duoyin and later on Facebook by Uyghurs. It also appeared in the marketing material of a travel agency based in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which said visitors had to pay 20-40 yuan (US$2.75-5.50) for tickets, based on their ages, and that entry was free for people 65 years of age and older. 

Authorities allow small groups of elderly worshipers to pray during Ramadan and other Islamic holy days, or for propaganda purposes when arranging visits for dignitaries from other parts of the world to give an impression that Uyghurs are not prohibited from praying, sources say.

Those who saw the recent social media post about tickets being sold assumed that the Chinese had turned the Id Kah Mosque into a museum.

Kashgar police told Radio Free Asia that the mosque was open for visitors but not for worshipers, and suggested contacting local travel agencies for more information.  

“I am not sure how much money each visitor pays, but I am positive that people are allowed to enter the mosque,” said an officer who declined to be named, per normal practice. 

“But no one is allowed to pray because the mosque sells tickets to visitors,” he said. “However, the government organizes people to pray inside the mosque. Only they can perform their prayers. It has been like this for five or six years.”

Foreign envoys from 14 countries visit the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, at the invitation of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 24, 2023.  Credit: Hu Huhu/Xinhua via Getty Images
Foreign envoys from 14 countries visit the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, at the invitation of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 24, 2023. Credit: Hu Huhu/Xinhua via Getty Images

Systematic campaign

Since about 2017, up to 16,000 mosques, or roughly 65%, of all mosques have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a U.S.-based activist group. Other mosques have been closed but left standing, and a few famous ones remain open but under surveillance.

The moves are part of a larger campaign of repression to erase Uyghur religious practices culture, along with the arbitrary detention of an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in internment centers and prisons.

In May 2022, when Michelle Bachelet, former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, visited the mosque, the imam, Memet Jume, told her that the facility was open for normal religious activities, even though it was not. 

When asked why there were so few worshipers in the mosque, he said that the faithful were busy with their work and that some had changed their viewpoints.

Residential committees paid Uyghurs to perform a dance outside the mosque in an apparent bid to show that all was well ahead of Bachelet’s visit.

Bachelet’s office issued a report in August 2022 documenting cases of torture, forced labor and other severe rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities. 

For years now, foreign visitors have noticed the absence of prayers inside the Id Kah Mosque. One of them posted a travel blog on YouTube, showing thousands of worshippers praying in the mosque between 2011 and 2016, but then an empty holy place in 2019.

Turghunjan Alawudin, a vice chairman of the executive committee of the World Uyghur Congress, said under Islam, it was never permissible to take money from those who enter a mosque, including tourists.

“If the tourists say they will donate to the mosque, they will,” he told RFA. “A mosque is only a place to worship Allah.”

“Therefore, it is completely fraudulent to say that we made half of the mosque a picnic ground and the other half a prayer ground,” he added.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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