Thousands of Xinjiang mosques destroyed or damaged, report finds

Chinese region has fewer mosques and shrines than at any time since Cultural Revolution, says thinktank

Thousands of mosques in Xinjiang have been damaged or destroyed in just three years, leaving fewer in the region than at any time since the Cultural Revolution, according to a report on Chinese oppression of Muslim minorities.

The revelations are contained in an expansive data project by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which used satellite imagery and on-the-ground reporting to map the extensive and continuing construction of detention campsand destruction of cultural and religious sites in the north-western region.

The thinktank said Chinese government claims that there were more than 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang and that it was committed to protecting and respecting religious beliefs were not supported by the findings, and estimated that fewer than 15,000 mosques remained standing – with more than half of those damaged to some extent.

“This is the lowest number since the Cultural Revolution, when fewer than 3,000 mosques remained,” the report said.

Read : China has built 380 internment camps in Xinjiang, study finds

It found around two-thirds of the area’s mosques were affected, and about 50% of protected cultural sites had been damaged or destroyed, including the total destruction of Ordam mazar (shrine), an ancient site of pilgrimage dating back to the 10th century.

Around 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang had been destroyed or damaged, according to a Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), with most of the destruction taking place in the last three years
Around 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang had been destroyed or damaged, according to a Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), with most of the destruction taking place in the last three years -GREG BAKER

Since 2017, an estimated 30% of mosques had been demolished, and another 30% damaged in some way, including the removal of architectural features such as minarets or domes, the report said. While the majority of sites remained as empty lots, others were turned into roads and car parks or converted for agricultural use, the report said.

Some were razed to the ground and rebuilt at a fraction of their former size, including Kashgar’s Grand Mosque, built in 1540 and granted the second-highest level of historic protection by Chinese authorities.

Areas that received large numbers of tourists, including the capital, Urumqi, and the city of Kashgar, were outliers, with little destruction recorded, but ASPI said reports from visitors to the cities suggested the majority of mosques were padlocked or had been converted to other uses.

ASPI said it compared recent satellite images with the precise coordinates of more than 900 officially registered religious sites which were recorded prior to the 2017 crackdown, then used sample-based methodology to make “statistically robust estimates” cross-referenced with census data.

Beijing has faced consistent accusations – backed by mounting evidence – of mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including the internment of more than a million Uighurs and Turkic Muslims in detention camps, the existence of which it initially denied before claiming they were training and re-education centres. The camps and other accusations of abuse, forced labour, forced sterilisation of women, mass surveillance and restrictions on religious and cultural beliefs have been labelled as cultural genocide by observers.

Beijing strenuously denies the accusations and says its policies in Xinjiang are to counter terrorism and religious extremism, and that its labour programmes are to alleviate poverty and are not forced.

The ASPI report said: “Alongside other coercive efforts to re-engineer Uighur social and cultural life by transforming or eliminating Uighurs’ language, music, homes and even diets, the Chinese government’s policies are actively erasing and altering key elements of their tangible cultural heritage.”

Interventions on minority ethnic cultures and communities have increased under the leadership of Xi Jinping. In recent weeks it was revealed authorities have also vastly expanded a forced labour programme in Tibet, and policies to reduce the use of the Mongolian language in Inner Mongolia. Government terminology frequently describes a need to transform the “backwards thinking” of the targeted cultural groups.

The campaign is part of a longer-term trend to transform communities in the name of public safety. The strategy has gained pace under President Xi Jinping who has called for the “Sinicization” of religion, said James Leibold, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who contributed to both of the reports.

“The [Communist] Party is making assessments about the reliability of Uighurs and thinking of different ways to erase opposition and erase the Uighur people’s cultural religion and identity,” he said.

Under fire from Western governments, Chinese officials have portrayed the campaign in Xinjiang as a benign effort to help Uighurs improve their lives. Xinjiang’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, said in December that all of the people sent to re-education centers had “graduated,” suggesting the facilities would be shut down. 

During a visit the following month, the Journal found that some facilities had indeed been closed, with former detainees sometimes sent away to work in factories. One facility had been converted into a prison after being previously described as a school.

Of the dozens of facilities ASPI identified as recently under construction, roughly half were higher-security facilities. The most-secure facilities had high walls, multiple layers of perimeter barriers, watchtowers and dozens of cell blocks with no apparent outside exercise yard for detainees, it said.

Authorities are likely singling out people who they have lost hope of re-educating and putting them into long periods of incarceration, said Mr. Leibold. It is “the only way to really explain their pretty remarkable expansion,” he said.

The building up of some facilities comes despite unprecedented pressure from Washington amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China.

Since July, the U.S. government has imposed sanctions on companiesand individuals it accuses of being involved in human-rights violations in the region, including Xinjiang’s top official, and blacklisted several Xinjiang-based suppliers to major Western brands. 

The increased scrutiny has made it harder for Western companies to do business in Xinjiang. Earlier this month, the White House blocked imports of goods from Xinjiang allegedly produced using forced labor. Meanwhile, several auditors have stopped offering to inspect companies’ labor conditions in Xinjiang factories, citing problems like police pressure. 

One challenge in pressuring China’s government over its Xinjiang policies is the relative silence of Muslim-majority countries. ASPI made its work available in 10 different languages to try to raise awareness beyond the English-speaking world, said Mr. Leibold.

The report called on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, which promotes the preservation of cultural heritage, to confront the Chinese government and investigate the state of Uighur and Islamic cultural sites in Xinjiang.

A Unesco spokeswoman said the organization had no immediate comment. The International Council on Monuments and Sites, which advises the organization, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

By : Helen Davidson – THE GUARDIAN

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