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Why China destroying the mosques of Xinjiang ?

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Around this period of the year, the border of the Taklamakan desert in far western China needs to be over-flowing with people. For decades, every spring thousands of Uighur Muslims will converge on the Imam Asim shrine, a group of buildings and fences surrounding a small mud tomb assumed to include the remains of a holy warrior from the eighth century.

Pilgrims from across the Hotan oasis will come seeking healing, fertility, and also trekking through the sand in the footsteps of people ahead of them. It was one of the largest shrine festivals in the region. People eventually left offerings and tied pieces of cloth to branches, markers of their prayers.

Traveling to a sacred shrine 3 times, it was believed, was as good as completing the hajj, a journey many in underdeveloped southern Xinjiang cannot afford.

But this year, the Imam Asim shrine is empty. Its mosque, khaniqah, a place for Sufi rituals, as well as other buildings are actually torn down, leaving only the tomb. The offerings and flags have got disappeared. Pilgrims no longer pay a visit to.

It truly is considered one of more than 2 dozen Islamic religious places that have been partly or completely wrecked in Xinjiang since 2016, in accordance with an investigation by the Guardian and also open-source journalism spot Bellingcat that provides new evidence of large-scale mosque razing in the Chinese territory in which rights groups point out Muslim minorities suffer extreme religious repression.

Using satellite imagery, the Guardian and Bellingcat open-source analyst Nick Waters examined the locations of 100 mosques and shrines identified by former residents, researchers, as well as crowdsourced mapping tools.

Out of 91 sites analysed, 31 mosques and two major shrines, which includes the Imam Asim complex and another spot, suffered significant structural damage between 2016 and 2018.

Of the, 15 mosques and the two shrines appear to have been completely or almost completely razed. The rest of the damaged mosques had gatehouses, domes, and minarets taken away.

An extra 9 locations identified by former Xinjiang residents as mosques, but in which buildings did not have obvious indicators of being a mosque such as minarets or domes, also appeared to have been damaged.

In the term of including religious extremism, China have overseen an intensifying state campaign of vast surveillance and also policing of Muslim minorities – the majority of them Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group that often have more in common with their Central Asian neighbours than their Han Chinese compatriots. Research workers express as many as 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been unconsciously sent out to internment or re-education camps, reports that Beijing rejects.

Campaigners as well as research workers believe authorities have bulldozed hundreds, likely thousands of mosques as part of the campaign. But a lack of records of these sites – most are small village mosques and shrines – difficulties police provide journalists and researchers traveling independently in Xinjiang, and extensive monitoring of residents have made it difficult to verify reports of their destruction.

The locations found by the Guardian and Bellingcat authenticate previous reports along with signal a new escalation in the current security clampdown: the razing of shrines. While confined years ago, major shrines have never been previously reported as damaged. Researchers point out the destruction of shrines that were once sites of mass pilgrimages, a key practice for Uighur Muslims, represent a whole new type of invasion on their tradition.

“The images of Imam Asim in ruins are quite shocking. For the more devoted pilgrims, they would be heartbreaking,” stated Rian Thum, a historian of Islam at the University of Nottingham.

Before the crackdown, pilgrims also trekked 70km into the desert sand to arrive at the Jafari Sadiq shrine, honouring Jafari Sadiq, a holy warrior whose spirit was assumed to have travelled to Xinjiang to help bring Islam to the region. The tomb, on a precipice in the desert, could have been torn down in March 2018. Architectural structures for housing the pilgrims in a nearby complex are also gone, in accordance with satellite imagery collected this month.

“Nothing could say more clearly to the Uighurs that the Chinese state wants to uproot their culture and break their connection to the land than the desecration of their ancestors’ graves, the sacred shrines that are the landmarks of Uighur history,” stated Thum.

The Kargilik mosque, at the centre of the vintage town of Kargilik in southern Xinjiang, was the biggest mosque in the area. Consumers from various villages gathered there each week. Visitors remember its tall towers, amazing entryway, and blossoms and trees that established an interior garden.

The mosque, previously recognized by online activist Shawn Zhang, appears to have been nearly completely razed during part of 2018, with its gatehouse along with buildings removed, in accordance with satellite images analysed by the Guardian and Bellingcat.

3 locals, staff at nearby restaurants and a hotel, informed the Guardian that the mosque were being torn down within the last half year. “It is gone. It was the biggest in Kargilik,” one restaurant member of staff stated.

Another major community mosque, the Yutian Aitika mosque near Hotan, could have been removed in March of last year. As the largest in its district, local people would gather here on Islamic festivals. The mosque’s history dates back in 1200.

In spite of being included on a list of national historical and cultural sites, its gatehouse and other buildings were removed in late 2018, based on satellite images analysed by Zhang and guaranteed by Waters. The damaged buildings were likely buildings which had been redesigned in the 1990s.

Two local residents who performed near the mosque, the owner of a hotel and a restaurant employee, informed the Guardian the mosque were torn down. One resident stated she had noticed the mosque would be restructured but smaller, to render room for new shops.

“Many mosques are gone. In the past, in every village like in Yutian county might have had one,” stated a Han Chinese restaurant owner in Yutian, who anticipated that as much as 80% had been torn down.

“Before, mosques were places for Muslims to pray, have social gatherings. In recent years, they were all cancelled. It’s not only in Yutian, but the whole Hotan area, It’s all the same… it’s all been corrected,” he stated.

Activists state the destruction of these historical sites is a way to incorporate the next generation of Uighurs. According to former residents, most Uighurs in Xinjiang have already stopped going to mosques, which are often equipped with surveillance systems. Most necessitate visitors to subscribe their IDs. Mass shrine festivals like the one at Imam Asim have been stopped for years.

Removing the structures, critics stated, will make it harder for young Uighurs growing up in China to never forget their unique 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,” declared a former resident of Hotan, making reference to the number of Uighurs assumed detained in camps, many of them separated from their families for months, sometimes years.

“Mosques being torn down is one of the few things we can see physically. What other things are happening that are hidden, that we don’t know about? That is what is scary,” he stated.

China denies allegations it targets Muslim minorities, constrains their religious and also cultural practices, or sends them to re-education camps. In response to questions relating to razed mosques, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated he was “not aware of the situation mentioned”.

“China practices freedom of religion and firmly opposes and combats religious extremist thought… There are more than 20 million Muslims and more than 35,000 mosques in China. The vast majority of believers can freely engage in religious activities according to the law,” he stated in a faxed announcement to the Guardian.

But Beijing is open about its very own objective of “sinicising” religions like Islam and Christianity to better fit China’s “national conditions”. In January, China passed a five-year plan to “guide Islam to be compatible with socialism”. In a speech in late March, party secretary Chen Quanguo who may have overseen the crackdown since 2016 stated the government in Xinjiang should “improve the conditions of religious places to guide “religion and socialism to adapt to each other”.

Eliminating Islamic buildings or features is another way of doing that, based on research workers.

“The Islamic architecture of Xinjiang, closely related to Indian and Central Asian styles, puts on public display the region’s links to the wider Islamic world,” stated David Brophy, a historian of Xinjiang at the University of Sydney. “Destroying this architecture serves to smooth the path for efforts to shape a new ‘sinicised’ Uighur Islam.”

Experts express the razing of religious places spots a return to extreme practices not observed since the Cultural Revolution when mosques and shrines were burned, or in the 1950s when major shrines were converted into museums as a way to desacralise them.

Today, authorities describe any changes to mosques as an effort to “improve” them. In Xinjiang, various plans to update the mosques include adding electricity, roads, news broadcasts, radios and televisions, “cultural bookstores,” and toilets. Another includes equipping mosques with computers, air conditioning units, and also lockers.

“That is code to allow them to demolish places that they deem to be in the way of progress or unsafe, to progressively yet steadily try to eradicate many of the places of worship for Uighurs and Muslim minorities,” stated James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University focusing on ethnic relations.

Critics state authorities are attempting to take away even the history of the shrines. Rahile Dawut, a prominent Uighur academic who reported shrines across Xinjiang, disappeared in 2017. Her former colleagues and relatives think she has been detained because of her work conserving Uighur traditions.

Dawut stated in an interview in 2012: “If one were to remove these… shrines, the Uighur people would lose contact with earth. They would no longer have a personal, cultural, and spiritual history. After a few years we would not have a memory of why we live here or where we belong.”

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