In Gongliu, an agricultural district in the turbulent Chinese region of Xinjiang, each village traditionally had its own mosque. Until, a few years ago, a demolition campaign was launched. De Volkskrant reconstructed this wave of destruction on the basis of satellite images, witness statements, and research on site. The result: of the 66 mosques that stood in Gongliu in 2018, only 12 are still intact and in use today.
‘Stop taking photographs!’, Han Taibin calls. He is from the Department of Propaganda in Gongliu, a lush, green agricultural district in the western part of Xinjiang. Han has been following me for quite some time and he just jumped out of his car to prevent me from taking a photograph. A photograph of a goat, with a black gate in the background and behind it nothing but emptiness. It is this very emptiness that makes the scene sensitive, as there used to be a mosque here.
‘Surely, I can take a photograph of a goat’, I ask him with feigned naïveté, as Han walks towards me, gesticulating wildly at the camera.
‘You are not photographing a goat, but a mosque’, he cries with indignation. ‘That is not allowed.’
But that is exactly the point: there is no mosque here at all. How can it be not allowed to photograph something that isn’t there?
Han Taibin is doing his best. He tries to stop me taking photographs, making a plea for ‘positive journalism’ and offering me interviews with local Uyghur. They can tell me how much life in Xinjiang has improved, he says, albeit under Han’s watchful eye. He also desperately tries to explain the emptiness of the place where once a mosque stood. ‘Destroyed? No, this mosque was not destroyed at all’, he says. ‘We are renovating it.’
What Han doesn’t know is that an inhabitant of Gongliu who fled to Kazakhstan in late 2019 has told me that the mosque was demolished in early 2018. And that historic satellite images clearly show how the building disappeared from the face of the earth in April 2018. So, Han keeps up his alternative truth: ‘The renovation of the mosque was started a few weeks ago and will be finished within two or three weeks. It all goes very quickly and will have no influence on the activities here.’
‘There is nothing amiss’
Han is toeing the line set out by the Chinese government: there is nothing amiss in Xinjiang and the border province with its sizeable Muslim population is stable and harmonious. The Islamic inhabitants of Xinjiang enjoy freedom of religion, the government respects all the rituals, and if any mosques were torn down it was only to make them better. Anything contradicting this are fabrications by biased media. ‘Come and look for yourself’, is the Chinese government’s mantra at all press conferences.
Following this advice, we move on to the Gongliu district, in the western part of Xinjiang, close to the border with Kazakhstan. It soon becomes an awkward trip: looking around by yourself turns out to be not very much appreciated at all. For two days we are followed by four, sometimes five cars, from early in the morning until late at night. In the night-time, our pursuers keep watch in the hotel lobby. They try to frustrate interviews and photo opportunities. Newsgathering is limited to very brief moments when we manage to shake off the caravan for a minute.
All these obstacles cannot prevent us from finding overwhelming evidence of government repression against mosques, and against Islam. Satellite pictures taken shortly before 2018 reveal 66 mosques in Gongliu. Based on later satellite images and our own research here we find that 39 of them were destroyed, 11 were damaged, and another four were closed. Of the 66 mosques only 12 remain, at the most.
In those few remaining mosques surveillance is ubiquitous. Believers are registered and monitored with cameras, even in the prayer hall. Outside the mosque Islam is also restricted. Inhabitants claim they are not allowed to have the Koran at home, grow a beard, or fast during Ramadan. They say they are at risk by even talking about this.
‘The villagers are afraid to speak out against the destruction of the mosques’, says an older inhabitant. For safety reasons we do not give the names or specific location of any source in Xinjiang. ‘If you say something about it, you’re in trouble. Then they’ll send you away to study’ [a euphemism for detention in a re-education camp - ed.].
Centre of the Islam
With its deserts and mountains, its clay houses and bazaars, the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang – as the area is officially called – feels more like Central Asia than like China. The Uyghur – who once made up three quarters of the population, but now number less than half because of the migration policy – have their own language, their own culture and cuisine. It is the only region in China where many of the inhabitants do not live by the official Beijing time: among themselves they arrange meetings in Xinjiang time, which is two hours later.
Since the tenth century, when Arab armies and missionaries moved in and local tribe leaders were converted, Xinjiang has also been a centre of Islam. The Arabs established a branch of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. They also left their mark on the everyday scene. Uyghur men traditionally wear a kind of fez (a doppa) and women wear head scarves. The skylines of towns such as Ürümqi and Kashgar were dominated by domes and minarets for a long time.
Xinjiang – literally: New Frontier – was outside of China for many centuries until it was annexed under the Qing dynasty, by the end of the eighteenth century. This led to frequent political tension, but religion was left alone for a long time. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, Xinjiang had 29,000 mosques. Many of these were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but were rebuilt in the 1980s and ʼ90s. By the turn of the century, the number of mosques had been more or less restored.
In Gongliu (Tokkuztara in Uyghur) things were no different. In addition to the Han Chinese there were three large Muslim communities: the Uyghur, the Kazakhs, and the (Chinese-speaking) Hui. The region, of about 4000 km2 (or 1600 square miles) but with only 208,000 inhabitants consists mainly of agricultural land, sparsely dotted with densely built villages. Traditionally, all these villages had their own mosque, and some have even two or three, one for each Islamic community.
This mosque in the center of Gongliu has been stripped of its dome and minarets. The building is now being incorporated into a new government building. Photo Leen Vervaeke
Repression of religion
In 2016, however, the mood changes. In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 and the subsequent US Global War on Terror, the Chinese government begins to label the political conflicts in Xinjiang as religious and anyone who opposes the government as a terrorist. Following riots in Ürümqi in 2009 and a number of attacks the government launches the anti-terrorist operation Strike Hard in 2014, followed by a ‘mosque rectification campaign’ in 2016. It is the start of a new wave of repression of religion.
‘Suddenly the visitors to the mosque had to register’, says Ordabay Aytan (31), a former resident of Aktubak, one of the villages of Gongliu. Aytan is an ethnic Kazakh. In 2017 he was incarcerated in a re-education camp, as were an estimated one million Muslims in Xinjiang, followed by a year of house arrest. In late 2019 he managed to escape to Kazakhstan. We come into contact with him through the Atajurt NGO, which reports on the Xinjiang diaspora.
Aytan is a practising Muslim, but since 2016 this became increasingly difficult. ‘The government confiscated everything that had to do with religion’, he says. ‘I put my Koran in a bag and threw it in the Yili River.’ The most visible intervention takes place in the mosques. When Aytan was incarcerated in late 2017, his village (consisting of six hamlets) had seven mosques. Upon his release one year later, there was only one left. ‘Nobody dared visit that mosque, not even for the Sugar Festival.’
Aytan tells us where the re-education camp is: in a secondary school, where strange walls appear in satellite photos of 2018, just like the ones in other camps. He also points out four of the seven erstwhile mosques on a map, which puts us on to something. From satellite images we conclude that many mosques in Gongliu were eradicated in 2018. To find out more we decide to go and take a look there.
A close watch
Working as a journalist in Xinjiang isn’t easy. The Chinese control state, which tries to limit independent journalism, has a particularly strong presence here. There are checkpoints around all cities, where everyone is checked. At the very first checkpoint a caravan of cars immediately starts following me. As soon as these lose sight of me, the local traffic police block the road. These roadblocks are quite special: as soon as I turn my car around, normal traffic resumes.
With a queue of followers on my tail I drive from one village to the next, looking for mosques or their former locations. It is a bizarre experience: the surroundings are idyllic with vast fields, colourful houses, and endless mountains on the horizon. But in every village there is an abundance of police stations and surveillance cameras and security measures are extreme. At the entrances of schools are heavy barricades, guarded by police officers with shields or automatic rifles.
Sometimes, when my followers are out of sight for a moment, I can have a brief word with inhabitants. Independently of each other, twelve inhabitants confirm that their village mosques have been torn down or closed and have not been replaced. ‘I haven’t been to a mosque in two or three years’, says one man. ‘The mosque is very far away now’, says another.
The Chinese government admits that mosques were torn down, but states that these were all undersized and dilapidated buildings from the eighties or nineties that were leaking and not earthquake resistant. In addition, some mosques were a hindrance to new urban development. These arguments are not very credible: three years later, the sites of the demolished mosques are all still undeveloped.
‘Our mosque was not that old at all’, says an inhabitant of one of the villages where there used to be three mosques and now none. ‘The mosque was only finished two, three years ago. We had spent over a million renminbi (€130,000) to build it. All the villagers joined in. We had just finished decorating it when it was torn down. Now if we want to pray, we do so at home.’
In cities like Kashgar and Ürümqi the Islam seems to fare better, at first sight. Their centres still feature many untouched mosques, up to the crescents on top of the minarets. On closer inspection, however, they seem to serve mainly as tourist attractions. The famous Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar charges a six-euro entrance fee. The mosque of the Erdaoqiao Bazaar in Ürümqi houses souvenir shops under a modular ceiling. Outside of the city centre mosques are fenced-off and closed.
In these city centres Islam has been relegated to shows, to a kind of Potemkin-mosques for tourists. Ironically, in Xinjiang men are not allowed to grow a beard, although according to one inhabitant this ban is enforced less strictly now than it was a few years ago (as an indication: in two days’ time I spot five men with beards). Then again, in a daily dance show for Han Chinese tourists in Kashgar, Uyghur men are played by actors with false beards.
Mosques that still function as places of worship look different, as becomes apparent in Gongliu. Three villages still have a functioning mosque, but these do not have domes or minarets but saddle roofs and colourful woodcarving, more in line with Chinese architecture. Believers have to pass through a metal detector and must register. The inner courtyard is decorated with Chinese flag, posters with the constitution, and communist slogans.
Local government officials, who just happen to pop up every time I get out of my car at one of the mosques, make no effort to conceal the fact that they keep a close watch on the worshippers. ‘On Fridays, 161 people come to pray here’, says one of them in the mosque of He’er, revealing a precision only afforded by registration. According to this official, half of the 4000 villagers are Muslims.
In Ordabay Aytan’s village one mosque still stands. It is a bright green building with fifty numbers on the carpet, ensuring that praying takes place at one metre distance in times of Covid-19. There are five cameras in the prayer hall, one of them pointed at the mihrab, where the imam leads in prayer. On the left of the mosque is a library with lots of law books besides two Korans, and a classroom where a poster exhorts ‘to adapt religion to the socialist society’.
The Chinese government states that surveillance is necessary to fight extremism – a problem that is exaggerated by Beijing, say experts – but it strictly defines what type of Islam is acceptable. Which is a CCP version of Islam, drenched in political ideology and aimed at serving the Chinese Communist Party. At one former mosque a banner proclaims: ‘Good lives have their origin in the Central Party Committee with comrade Xi Jinping as the core.’
Since the ‘rectification campaign’ most believers in Xinjiang no longer visit the mosque, as it is too far off and too risky. ‘If you want to enter a mosque, you have to show your ID card’, says a man in the provincial capital of Ürümqi, at one of the rare occasions that there are no followers or cameras. ‘But if your name pops up in that regard, you are in trouble. That is the reason why people no longer visit the mosque. They are afraid.’
Some believers pray at home, but even here restrictions apply. Residents tell me that they are not allowed to have a Koran in the house, or to fast. ‘Some people fast without anybody knowing about it, but if they do know, you can’t do it without getting problems’, says the man in Ürümqi. Social control is ubiquitous: residents are divided into groups of ten households that have to check on each other and are responsible for each other’s transgressions.
‘In our village there were always two party officials making the rounds to check the houses’, says Ordabay Aytan. ‘They could come into your house at any time, even at night. The government also asks your neighbours to report you if you do anything of a religious nature, or they will be held responsible. Your neighbours are spies, and you never know when they come knocking at your door.’
Those who persist in religious practices risk severe penalties. ‘In early 2019 the authorities rounded up all the residents of the village’, says Aytan. ‘They brought forth seven men in black hoods and condemned them to sentences of more than ten years for having prayed together.’ Aytan also knows of many imams and students of Islam who have been sentenced to more than 20 years in jail. The imam of his own village mosque is serving a 25-year sentence.
It is at the gate of that same mosque where government official Han Taibin nervously insists that I delete the photographs. Photographs that reveal nothing, unless you know what was there and has now disappeared: a tree-lined path, a forecourt, and a small prayer hall – 10 x 15 metres – with a blue saddle roof. The legend of the mortuary that was built after the mosque was demolished but has never been used, has been scratched off. Of the mosque nothing is left but some scattered stones among weeds.
Most of the mosques in Gongliu either destroyed or closed
In Gongliu, a district in the Chinese Xinjiang region, the majority of all mosques have disappeared after a 2018 destruction campaign. This has become apparent from research by de Volkskrant, witness statements, satellite images, and on-site observations. More than 80 percent of mosques that could be located in satellite images have been either destroyed, damaged, or closed.