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China closing hundreds of mosques in northern regions, rights group says

Chinese authorities have closed or altered hundreds of mosques in the northern regions of Ningxia and Gansu, homes to the highest Muslim populations in China after Xinjiang, as part of broader efforts to “sinicise” China’s religious minorities, according to a report.

Researchers at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Chinese government was significantly reducing the number of mosques in Ningxia autonomous region and Gansu province.

The Chinese Communist party (CCP) has long maintained a tight grip over China’s religious and ethnic minorities, and since 2016 when Xi Jinping, China’s leader, called for the sinicisation of China’s religions, the pace and intensity of mosque alterations has increased.

In April 2018, Beijing issued a directive stating that government officials should “strictly control the construction and layout of Islamic activity venues” and “adhere to the principle of demolishing more and building less”.

The researchers at HRW analysed satellite imagery to examine the mosque consolidation policy in two villages in Ningxia. It found that between 2019 and 2021, the domes and minarets were removed from all seven of the mosques. Four of the mosques were significantly altered: three main buildings were razed and the ablution hall of one was damaged.

Hannah Theaker, a lecturer at the University of Plymouth who has researched the topic with David Stroup, of the University of Manchester, said the removal of ablution facilities was a way of “basically immediately ensuring that you cannot use them, [so that] it has effectively been removed as a place of worship, without being visible.”

Theaker and Stroup estimate that about 1,300 mosques in Ningxia – a third of the total number registered – have been closed since 2020. That estimate does not include mosques that have been closed or demolished because of their unofficial status, most of which happened before 2020.

HRW was not able to determine the exact number of mosques that have been closed or modified in recent years, but government reports suggest it is likely to be hundreds. In Zhongwei, a city with more than 1 million residents, authorities said in 2019 that they had altered 214 mosques, consolidated 58, and banned 37 “illegally registered religious sites”. In the town of Jingui, authorities said they had “rectified” more than 130 sites “with Islamic architectural features”.

An imam in Ningxia interviewed by Radio Free Asia said the mosque consolidation policy meant that any mosques within 2.5km of each other had to be merged. “When mosques are closed, many young and middle-aged people will no longer go to mosques to participate in religious activities, and the next generation will slowly lose faith and have no confidence in Islam … in this way, Muslims are slowly being sinicised,” he was quoted in RFA as saying.

Maya Wang, the acting China director at HRW, said the “closure, destruction and repurposing of mosques is part of a systematic effort to curb the practice of Islam in China.”

A Chinese government spokesperson said: “People of all ethnic groups in China are fully entitled to the freedom of religious belief as prescribed by law. Following policies that protect freedom of religious belief, China, like other countries, administers religious affairs in accordance with law. We are resolute in rejecting and fighting religious extremism. Believers’ normal religious activities are guaranteed in accordance with law and their customs respected.”

The mosque consolidation policy is not confined to Ningxia and Gansu. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that 65% of Xinjiang’s 16,000 mosques have been destroyed or damaged since 2017.

In May, hundreds of police clashed with protesters in a Hui Muslim town in Yunnan province, in south-west China, over attempts to dismantle parts of an important local mosque.

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