Chinese mosque partially destroyed in state campaign against Muslim minority

A mosque in a village in Gansu Province, China, was dismantled on April 11. (Photo: Erkin Azat)
A mosque in a village in Gansu Province, China, was dismantled on April 11. (Photo: Erkin Azat)

A mosque in Gansu province, in north-central China, was partially dismantled on April 11, the latest casualty of a national campaign to eradicate Islamic traditions.

Chinese authorities have been systematically cracking down on Muslim minorities in the country, notably in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where around a million Uighurs are being held in detention camps.

But the repressive measures are steadily extending into other regions, with local reports of the destruction of mosques and the removal of Islamic symbols in Ningxia and Gansu Provinces, home to large numbers of the country’s Hui Muslim community.

On April 11, authorities demolished part of a mosque located in Gazhuang village, in Gansu’s Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, leaving a huge gash in its golden dome and pulling down Islamic motifs inside. The mosque was built less than a month ago and residents were warned not to publish photos and videos of the destruction, according to Bitter Winter and Deutsche Welle.

But videos emerged on Twitter days later showing the damaged dome, debris scattered on the roof and near the entrance, and a large crane with a red bow attached to its bumper sitting in the courtyard of the mosque. Several people are seen crying on the ground.

The individual who took the videos sent them to Erkin Azat, a Xinjiang-born freelance journalist now based in Kazakhstan, who then posted them online. Azat, who uses a pseudonym to protect family members still living in Xinjiang from repercussions, said his source told him several people who took videos of the demolition were later arrested.

"There was no warning"

According to my contact, the demolitions in Gansu Province started last year. Mosques are being destroyed, others have had their domes, minarets, and Arabic scripture removed. It’s difficult to verify the exact number in Gansu. The government’s goal is one mosque for each city or county, and mosques in the countryside are now gone. One is kept for show, in case international organisations come to interview the Muslim communities, for example.

My contact said there was no warning in Gazhuang village, that they just came and destroyed the mosque. Residents were told that the order came from the central government, that the minarets and domes had to come down. Some elderly people fainted, and six of them who didn’t want to leave the mosque were beaten. People who posted about the demolition online were arrested.

People are scared to go to the mosque, to speak out, they’re scared of being investigated. The situation in Gansu has been deteriorating over the past year, just like in Xinjiang.

China has plowed forward with its campaign to control its citizens’ religions and daily lives and to eradicate any customs that might be perceived as promoting non-traditional Chinese values. Officials have pulled down churches and last year banned sales of the Bible. It has defended its detainment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, which has drawn widespread condemnation, as a necessary precaution against terrorism.

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In Gansu Province, new regulations were put in place last month requiring religious groups and institutions to be free of foreign influence and to adhere to a “Chinese orientation” of religion.

"The party is trying to tighten control of society"

Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s College London who focuses on human rights in China, said these tactics underscore the Communist Party’s increasing control of every aspect of society.

Authorities are doing what was previously done in Xinjiang, which is to control Islam because they perceive it as a foreign influence. The party is trying to tighten control of society in all areas, and sees some religious communities as a threat to this control.

It’s about exercising control through fear. In Xinjiang, Uighurs are sent to camps with the ostentatious goal of educating them and turning them into good Chinese citizens. It’s worrying that this has been accompanied by what seem to be quite swift and arbitrary mosque demolitions.

This goes well beyond a systematic violation of religious freedom. It’s a group identity that is being under assault as well.

Azat said he expected the crackdown on Muslim minorities to spread quickly inwards into the country.

The detention centers in Xinjiang have been built, and I’m worried they will be built in the neighboring Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia Provinces as well.

The government wants to exterminate people whose appearance and identities are different, like Tibetans, Uighurs, Hui people, Kazaks, and Mongols, because they believe these people are a threat. They believe they will be better able to control people and solve the country’s social issues if everyone becomes Han Chinese. But this is wrong.

This story was written by Jenny Che.