Guardian and Bellingcat investigation finds more than two dozen Islamic religious sites partly or completely demolished since 2016
In the name of containing religious extremism, China has overseen an intensifying state campaign of mass surveillance and policing of Muslim minorities — many of them Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group that often have more in common with their Central Asian neighbours than their Han Chinese compatriots. Researchers say as many as 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been involuntarily sent to internment or re-education camps, claims that Beijing rejects.
Campaigners and researchers believe authorities have bulldozed hundreds, possibly thousands of mosques as part of the campaign. But a lack of records of these sites — many are small village mosques and shrines — difficulties police give journalists and researchers traveling independently in Xinjiang, and widespread surveillance of residents have made it difficult to confirm reports of their destruction.
The locations found by the Guardian and Bellingcat corroborate previous reports as well as signal a new escalation in the current security clampdown: the razing of shrines. While closed years ago, major shrines have not been previously reported as demolished. Researchers say the destruction of shrines that were once sites of mass pilgrimages, a key practice for Uighur Muslims, represent a new form of assault on their culture.
Activists say the destruction of these historical sites is a way to assimilate the next generation of Uighurs. According to former residents, most Uighurs in Xinjiang had already stopped going to mosques, which are often equipped with surveillance systems. Most require visitors to register their IDs. Mass shrine festivals like the one at Imam Asim had been stopped for years.
Removing the structures, critics said, would make it harder for young Uighurs growing up in China to remember their distinctive background.
“If the current generation, you take away their parents and on the other hand you destroy the cultural heritage that reminds them of their origin … when they grow up, this will be foreign to them,” said a former resident of Hotan, referring to the number of Uighurs believed detained in camps, many of them separated from their families for months, sometimes years.