In its continuing campaign that has seen thousands of Muslim holy sites destroyed in recent years, Chinese authorities in Atush City, in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), have razed two of three mosques in the village of Suntagh.
According to a local security officer, the Azna and Destangah mosques in Suntagh were the latest to be demolished in the XUAR as part of a campaign known as “Mosque Rectification” which started in 2016.
The Mosque Rectification drive, part of a series of hardline policies under top leader Xi Jinping, predates the mass incarceration of as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR that began in April 2017.
Through early investigations into the mosque campaign, RFA’s Uyghur Service found that authorities had destroyed some 70% of the mosques across the region.
At the time, authorities gave “social safety” as the reason for the campaign, which appears to have continued into the years following 2016 and the intensification of the authorities’ comprehensive repression of Uyghurs.
RFA recently conducted a telephone interview with a Uyghur public security officer from Suntagh village in Atush, a county-level city of about 270,000 people under the administration of Kashgar prefecture in the cotton- and grape-growing region of southwestern XUAR.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, confirmed that two of three remaining mosques in the village were torn down in or around the autumn of 2019, and that the mosque authorities left standing was the smallest and in the poorest condition of all three.
“Azna mosque … was demolished last year,” the officer said, adding that he had observed the razing. “I think it was maybe in the fall … They brought machinery in for the demolition.”
“Suntagh’s Azna and Destangah mosques were destroyed … [Destangah] was demolished at the same time [as Azna],” he said, without providing a reason for the teardowns.
According to the officer, the local government decided to leave the third mosque—Teres mosque—standing, despite the fact that “the others were in better condition,” and far larger, and Destangah was conveniently situated next to the Suntagh bazaar.
Additionally, Azna and Destangah had been constructed by brick, he said, while Teres “has earthen walls” that are “covered with older wood.”
“[The destroyed] mosques were more solid because the roofs were poured … with cement,” while the wooden roof on Teres can barely keep out the rain, the officer said.
China is now home to more than 22 million Muslims, including some 11 million Uyghurs. Mosques and other religious sites in Xinjiang were badly damaged during the political upheaval of China’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Since 2016, the Chinese authorities have been systematically destroying mosques, cemeteries, and other religious structures and sites across the XUAR.
An investigation by Agence France-Presse revealed that at least 45 cemeteries in the XUAR had been destroyed from 2014 until last October, with 30 razed since 2017. The sites were turned into parks or parking lots, or remained empty lots.
Last year, the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) published a report detailing this campaign, titled “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghurs Mosques and Shrines,” which uses geolocation and other techniques to show that anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 mosques, shrines, and other religious sites in the region were destroyed between 2016 and 2019.
Recently, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out in an official statement that there are more mosques in the XUAR than in all of the United States. Additionally, the Chinese Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, issued a statement claiming that there is one mosque for every 500 people in the Uyghur Region.
However, it remains clear from a variety of other sources that the authorities have destroyed mosques across the region, leaving single mosques standing in many communities where there used to be dozens.
Analysts have speculated that authorities have selectively left some mosques standing in the XUAR for show, rather than to allow local residents the freedom to practice religion. (Source: RFA)