Three-quarters of mosques in China have been altered or destroyed

By Sorcha Bradley, The Week UK, 01 December 2023

Chinese authorities step up Xi Jinping's "sinicization" policy by removing Islamic architecture

Chinese authorities have altered, closed or partially demolished thousands of mosques across China in a suppression of Islamic culture that has spread to almost every region of the country.

Beijing's Doudian Mosque, once among the grandest in northern China, has undergone significant alterations this year, with "its minarets… removed, its domes replaced with pagoda-style cones and its Arab-style arches squared off", reported the Financial Times (FT).

These changes, however, appear to be part of a more extensive crackdown on Islamic religious sites over the past five years.

'Three-quarters' of China's mosques altered or destroyed

Based on satellite images, the FT investigation has revealed that thousands of mosques have undergone modifications in "a widespread policy of stripping buildings of Arabic features". Changes to mosques have been made "in every region" of China, including both rural and urban areas.

Activists fear that the changes reflect a "broader suppression of Islamic culture" in China, said the paper. "This is the start of the end of Islam in China," warned Ma Ju, a US-based campaigner for Chinese Muslim rights.

According to the FT, an analysis of 2,312 mosques with Islamic architecture found that three-quarters of them have been modified or destroyed since 2018. Satellite imagery shows at least 1,714 buildings altered, stripped or destroyed.

Government officials have said that these changes aim to "harmonise" mosques with Chinese culture and "foster economic development" in areas such as Xinjiang. But "modifications have been most prevalent in regions with the highest population of ethnic groups that traditionally practise Islam", the paper reported.

The investigation follows reports from Human Rights Watch and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which have highlighted the destruction and alteration of mosques in Xinjiang, noting an alarming escalation in alterations since 2017. But the FT's investigation casts new light on the "scale and spread" of China's destruction of mosques.

'Sinicization' of religion in China

While China's constitution says that ordinary citizens have "freedom of religious belief" in the country, in 2016 President Xi Jinping called for the "sinicization" of religion in China, a policy which "requires religious groups to align their doctrines, customs and morality with Chinese culture", according to the Pew Research Center.

The policy particularly affects "so-called 'foreign' religions" such as Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, whose adherents "are expected to prioritise Chinese traditions and show loyalty to the state".

In 2018, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) central committee published a document that referred to the "control and consolidation" of mosques, said the BBC.

It urged state agencies to "strengthen the standardised management of the construction, renovation and expansion of Islamic religious venues" and said that "there should not be newly built Islamic venues" in order to "compress the overall number (of mosques)".

While the "sinicization" policy has primarily targeted the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, who have faced imprisonment in internment camps despite international condemnation, the widespread alterations to mosques may indicate a systematic effort to curb the practice of Islam across China. This includes by the Hui ethnic group, which makes up around around half of China's 20 million Muslims.

James Leibold, an expert on China's ethnic policies, said that Hui are seen by the Chinese state as the "good Muslims" due to their adherence to Chinese language and culture. But the widespread alterations to mosques have led many Hui to fear "religious freedoms will now also be eroded", said the Financial Times.

"People feel that the government is slowly decreasing the difference between the way it handles Uyghurs and the way it handles [other] Chinese Muslims," said Ruslan Yusupov, a Cornell University fellow, speaking to the paper. "But many think it will not come to the camps," he said.