Thousands of mosques and Islamic sites in China province of 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 Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on Friday released a research report into the destruction of Islamic and Uyghur sites in Xinjiang which used satellite imagery and on-the-ground reporting to map the extensive and continuing construction of detention camps and destruction of cultural and religious sites in the north-western region.
The Institute 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.
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.
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 faced accusations of mass human rights abuses
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.
Lead author Nathan Ruser estimated 35 per cent of mosques have been demolished and a further 30 per cent damaged in some way.
The damage usually involves the removal of Islamic or Arabic architectural features such as domes, minarets or gatehouses.
“We estimate approximately 16,000 mosques have been damaged or totally destroyed throughout Xinjiang,” he said.
“The majority of demolished sites remain as empty lots.”
As well, about a third of important Islamic cultural sites – such as sacred shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes – across southern Xinjiang have been demolished since 2017, with an additional 28 per cent damaged or altered in some way.
“Our dataset and analysis provides the first estimates of the scope and scale of cultural genocide in Xinjiang, and the tragic results of the Chinese government’s efforts to ‘sinicise’, ‘rectify’, and in some cases, outright erase the tangible and sacred culture of the Uyghur people and non-Han nationalities in the region,” Mr Ruser said. (Muslimedia.PH)