(TibetanReview.net, Nov23’23) – China is closing, destroying, or repurposing hundreds to over a thousand mosques in an expansion of its campaign of Sinicizing the Islamic faith beyond Xinjiang to other Muslim areas in the country, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a new report, and a bbc.com report on it, Nov 22.
Authorities in the northern Ningxia region as well as Gansu province have closed mosques as part of a process known officially as “consolidation,” the report said, drawing on public documents, satellite images and witness testimonies.
In a campaign that has been ongoing since at least 2016, authorities have been removing architectural features of mosques to make them look more “Chinese”, part of a campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC)-state (Party-state) to tighten control over religion and reduce the risk of possible challenges to its rule.
The crackdown is part of a “systematic effort” to curb the practice of Islam in China, which the Party sees as important for this purpose, just as it sees Sinicizing Buddhism as important for stemming the “separatist” movement in Tibetan areas.
The campaign followed a call made by President Xi Jinping in 2016 for the “Sinicization” of religions. The campaign, in its physical aspect, has seen demolition of officially sanctioned giant Buddha statues and other religious structures in Tibetan areas and arrests of people who protested against the move.
The campaign requires religions to be aligned with the Party-state’s political ideology and Chinese culture, with religious belief being transformed to reflect Chinese culture and society.
In the case of the Islamic faith, the crackdown initially concentrated largely on Xinjiang, home to over 11 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
But now, Chinese authorities have decommissioned, closed down, demolished or converted mosques for secular use in regions outside Xinjiang as well, as part of a campaign aimed at cracking down on religious expression, the report said.
The report noted that one of the first known references to “mosque consolidation” appeared in a 2018 internal party memo that was leaked to US media as part of a trove of documents known as the “Xinjiang Papers.” The file was stated to instruct state agencies to “strengthen the standardised management of the construction, renovation and expansion of Islamic religious venues” and stressed “there should not be newly built Islamic venues” in order to “compress the overall number (of mosques).”
The campaign has seen authorities dismantle domes and minarets of seven mosques and raze the main buildings of three of them in Liaoqiao and Chuankou villages in Ningxia between 2019 and 2021. Further, the ablution hall of one mosque was damaged, the report said.
Altogether, about 1,300 mosques in Ningxia have been closed or converted since 2020, the bbc.com report cited Hannah Theaker, a scholar on Chinese Muslims, as saying. That number was stated to represents a third of the total mosques in the region.
In Guanghe county in Gansu, authorities in 2020 “cancelled the registration of 12 mosques, closed down five mosques and improved and consolidated another five,” the report said, citing the government’s annual yearbook.
Many people have been jailed or detained over the years after clashing with authorities over the closure or demolition of mosques, the HRW report said.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is home to about 20 million Muslims, with the country being officially atheist but supposedly allowing religious freedom, albeit under strict Party-state supervision. Most of the Muslims in the PRC live in the country’s north-west, which includes Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia.