Satellite images show Chinese mosques disappearing as Xi Jinping accused of persecution of Muslims

The Xi Jinping government in China is demolishing mosques in the north-central provinces in a bid to “Sinicise” China’s religious minorities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.

Chinese authorities have demolished, closed down, decommissioned, and converted mosques for secular use as a part of the “government’s efforts to restrict the practice of Islam” in Ningxia and Gansu provinces, the rights organisation said, citing satellite images.

The “mosque consolidation” policy was referenced in an April 2018 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document to outline a multi-pronged national strategy to make Islam “more Chinese”. Rights groups say it has resulted in mass persecution of Muslim communities.

Ningxia and Gansu provinces account for the highest number of Muslims in China after Xinjiang in the northwest region.

The Chinese government under president Xi has been accused of notoriously prosecuting Uyghurs and Hui Muslims over the past decade through alleged widespread abuses and arbitrary detentions.

Beijing has routinely denied allegations of “crimes against humanity”, calling them the “lie of the century”.

China has been reportedly modifying thousands of mosques by razing domes and minarets to “remove the evidence” of foreign religious influence.

The document states there “should be more [mosque] demolitions than constructions”, according to the rights group.

Liaoqiao Village with its 55 per cent of Hui Muslim population in 2013 housed six mosques, featuring Islamic architecture and round domes. However, satellite images show the features were removed from three of the mosques between January and August 2020, with the central halls of the mosques completely destroyed.

Status of the six mosques of Liaoqiao village in December 2022 (Human Rights Watch/ Maxar)
Status of the six mosques of Liaoqiao village in December 2022 (Human Rights Watch/ Maxar)

“It is unlikely that they will continue to function as mosques,” HRW said in its report published Wednesday.

The Liujiagou Mosque in southern Ningxia’s Chuankou village was first built in 1988 and then rebuilt in 2016 with a larger main hall featuring two minarets and a dome.

Recent satellite images show the minarets and the dome were removed sometime between 2019 and 2021. The mosque’s interior of the ablution hall, which is essential for daily prayers, was also demolished.

The mosque was shut for prayer in 2022, an anonymous source told the rights group.

Local documents suggest that in Zhongwei City, authorities “completed the alteration of 214 mosques, consolidated 58 mosques, and banned 37 unregistered religious venues” in 2019.

The city previously housed 852 mosques in 2009, according to an official mosque directory of Ningxia.

The administration in Qingtongxia City claimed in 2020 to have “combined six mosques”, and “the scale and frequency of large-scale and cross-regional religious activities dropped by 30.6 per cent and 62.5 per cent year-on-year respectively”. The city had 69 mosques in 2009, according to the rights group.

Mosques were equally targeted in the Gansu province following the government’s order to “Sinicize Islam” – an attempt to make the religion more Chinese in character and form.

Ten mosques were “reduced and combined” and the 31 other mosques had alterations of Islamic architectural features in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in 2020.

In Guanghe county, known as “Little Mecca” with an overwhelming Hui Muslim population, the Chinese authorities in 2020 “cancelled the registration of 12 mosques, closed down five mosques, and improved and consolidated another five”.

“The Chinese government is not ‘consolidating’ mosques as it claims, but closing many down in violation of religious freedom,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at HRW.

“The Chinese government’s closure, destruction, and repurposing of mosques is part of a systematic effort to curb the practice of Islam in China.”

According to a 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Xi administration has damaged or destroyed two-thirds of the mosques in Xinjiang.

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