Mosques are disappearing as China strives to “build beautiful Xinjiang”.

Mosques are disappearing as China strives to “build beautiful Xinjiang”.

The Jiaman Mosque in the city of Qira in the far west of China, Xinjiang, is hidden behind high walls and propaganda signs for the Communist Party, so that passers-by have no indication that a religious site is located here.

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The Jiaman Mosque in the city of Qira in the far west of China, Xinjiang, is hidden behind high walls and propaganda signs for the Communist Party, so that passers-by have no indication that a religious site is located here.

Late that night, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, two ethnic Uighur women sat behind a tiny grille under a surveillance camera on the grounds of what has long been the city’s largest place of worship.

Within minutes of the reporters’ arrival, four plainclothes men showed up and took positions on the site to lock the gates to nearby apartment buildings.

The men told reporters it was illegal to take pictures and go.

“There is no mosque here … there has never been a mosque at this point,” replied one of the men when asked whether there was a mosque inside. He refused to provide identification.

Minarets on the four corners of the building, seen in publicly available satellite imagery in 2019, have disappeared. A large blue metal box stood where the mosque’s central dome had once been. It was not clear whether it was a place of worship at the time the satellite images were taken.

In recent months, China has stepped up a campaign in state media and government-organized tours to counter criticism from researchers, rights groups and former residents of Xinjiang that thousands of mosques have cracked down on the region’s mostly Muslim Uyghurs .

Officials from Xinjiang and Beijing told reporters in Beijing that no religious sites had been forcibly destroyed or restricted and invited them to visit and report.

“Instead, we have taken a number of measures to protect them,” Elijan Anayat, a spokesman for the Xinjiang government, said of mosques late last year.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday that some mosques had been demolished while others had been modernized and expanded as part of rural revitalization, but Muslims could practice their religion openly at home and in mosques.

When asked about the restrictions that journalists have placed on journalists in the region, Hua said reporters need to work harder to “win the trust of the Chinese” and report objectively.

visited more than two dozen mosques in seven counties in southwest and central Xinjiang during a 12-day visit during Ramadan, which ended Thursday.

There is a contrast between Beijing’s campaign to protect mosques and religious freedom and the reality on the ground. Most of the mosques have been partially or completely demolished.

China has repeatedly said that Xinjiang faces serious threats from separatists and religious extremists who are planning attacks and creating tension between Uyghurs who call the region home and the ethnic Han, China’s largest ethics group.

A mass action that includes a campaign of restrictions on religious practice and what rights groups describe as forced political indoctrination of more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslims began in earnest in 2017.

China initially refused to detain people in detention centers, but has since stated that they are vocational training centers and that people have “graduated” from them.

The government says there are more than 20,000 mosques in Xinjiang, but detailed data on their status is not available.

Some functioning mosques have signs stating that parishioners must register while outside of the area citizens, foreigners, and anyone under the age of 18 are prohibited from entering.

Functioning mosques have surveillance cameras and contain Chinese flags and propaganda displays declaring allegiance to the ruling Communist Party.

Visiting reporters were almost always followed by plainclothes staff and warned not to take photos.

A Han woman who said she moved to Hotan City from central China six years ago said Muslims who wanted to pray could do so at home.

“There are no longer such Muslims here,” said the woman, referring to those who had previously prayed in the mosque. She added, “Life in Xinjiang is beautiful.”

Some state-sanctioned mosques, such as the Jiaman Mosque in Hotan, are shown to journalists and diplomats.

“Everything is paid for by the party,” said a Hotan official in the mosque during a visit.

The official, nicknamed “Ade” but refusing to give his full name, said men were allowed to pray in the mosque five times a day according to Islamic custom.

While reporters were there, several dozen men, most of them elderly, came to pray as dusk fell. They then broke their fast with food provided by the local government.

The mosque, which is more than 170 years old, is one of four mosques in the region that are designated as cultural relics. The central government has allocated funds for the renovation, the Xinjiang government said.

When the leader or imam of the mosque took off his shoes, Ade demonstrated a government-provided machine that shrinks shoes in plastic.

“Now you don’t even have to take off your shoes in the mosque, it’s very convenient,” he said.

In Changji, about 40 km west of the regional center, the Urumqi, green and red minarets of the city’s Xinqu Mosque, lay broken under a Chinese flag that waved over the courtyard of the abandoned building.

analyzed satellite images of 10 mosques in Changji City and visited six of them.

According to dated images, a total of 31 minarets and 12 green or gold domes had been removed within two months of 2018.

In several mosques, the Islamic architecture has been replaced by roofs in the Chinese style. This included Changji’s Tianchi Street Mosque, whose golden dome and minarets were removed in 2018 according to publicly available satellite images.

The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment on the state of mosques in the area.

Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated in 2020, after examining 900 locations in Xinjiang, that 16,000 mosques had been partially or completely destroyed in the past three years.

Signs in front of the Xinqu Mosque with the crumbling minarets said that a housing estate would soon be built on the site.

“Build a beautiful Xinjiang for ethical unity,” read one sign.

(With contributions from agencies)