The Lanzhou Xiguan Mosque is seen in this file image. The authorities have reportedly demolished parts of this 17th-century mosque to replace its Arabian-style architecture with Chinese characteristics. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
An International rights group has accused the Chinese government of closing, demolishing, and converting mosques in China for “secular use” as part of the government’s efforts to restrict the practice of Islam.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a Nov. 22 report said the Chinese government has significantly reduced the number of mosques in Ningxia and Gansu provinces under a “mosque consolidation” policy.
Maya Wang, HRW's acting China director said Chinese authorities were violating the right to freedom of religion through mosque closures.
“The Chinese government is not ‘consolidating’ mosques as it claims, but closing many down in violation of religious freedom,” she said.
“The Chinese government’s closure, destruction, and repurposing of mosques is part of a systematic effort to curb the practice of Islam in China,” she alleged.
Apart from decommissioning, closing, and demolishing mosques, the authorities have converted some mosques into “workspaces” and “cultural centers” as part of their “poverty alleviation” efforts, HRW claimed.
The rights group cited the case of a WeChat post by Linxia Television Station which reported the decommissioning and conversion of a mosque in 2019 into a workshop and “cultural center.”
According to Chinese law, people are allowed to practice their religion only in officially approved places of worship of officially approved religions. The authorities retain strict control over houses of worship.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led government also implements the “sinicization” of religions which began after President Xi Jinping introduced the concept in 2016.
Sinicization is a political ideology promoted by the CCP that aims to impose strict rules on society and institutions based on the core values of socialism, autonomy, and supporting the leadership of the party, across ethnic and religious communities in China.
“Mosque consolidation” which is referenced in an April 2018 central CCP document outlines a multi-pronged national strategy to “sinicize” Islam, or make it more Chinese, HRW said.
The document instructs the CCP and state agencies throughout the country to “strengthen the standardized management of the construction, renovation, and expansion of Islamic religious venues.”
According to HRW, the controversial document states that “there should be more [mosque] demolitions than constructions,” and “there should not be newly built Islamic venues,” to “compress the overall number [of mosques].”
The Chinese government has claimed that the mosque consolidation policy aims to “reduce the economic burden” on Muslims, especially those who live in impoverished and rural areas, HRW said.
Redirecting loyalty towards the CCP
Ma Ju, a US-based Hui Muslim activist who has been in contact with affected Muslims in China, said the government aims to “transform” devout Muslims and redirect their loyalty toward the CCP.
“Government officials first approach those Communist Party members who are also Hui Muslims … then they move onto ‘persuading’ students and governmental workers, who are threatened with school probation and unemployment if they continue with their faith,” Ju said.
He said that mosque consolidation aims to dissuade people from going to pray at mosques, and this is used as an excuse to close or demolish them.
“After removing the minarets and domes, local governments would start removing things that are essential to religious activities such as ablution halls and preacher’s podiums,” Ju said.
When people stop going, they [the authorities] would then use that as an excuse to close the mosques,” Ju added.
He further added that the authorities install surveillance systems in the remaining “sinicized” mosques to “strictly monitor attendance at the remaining mosques … to flag [those prohibited from mosques, including] Communist Party members or children.”
Disregard for religious freedom
Wang alleged that the “mosque consolidation” program was against all religions in China and called on international governments to question the Chinese authorities on the issue.
“The Chinese government’s policies of sinicization show a blanket disregard for freedom of religion not only of all Muslims in China, but all religious communities in the country,” Wang said.
“Governments concerned about religious freedom should raise these issues directly with the Chinese government and at the United Nations and other international forums,” Wang added.
Citing a Radio Free Asia report from March 2021, HRW said that an estimated 400 to 500 mosques faced closure in Ningxia, which had 4,203 mosques as of 2014.
In 2019, Zhongwei City authorities said they had “completed the alteration of 214 mosques, consolidated 58 mosques, and banned 37 unregistered religious venues,” HRW said.
Zhongwei City had 852 mosques in 2009, according to an official Ningxia mosque directory.
In 2020, the Qingtongxia City government said it had “combined six mosques,” and “the scale and frequency of large-scale and cross-regional religious activities dropped by 30.6 percent and 62.5 percent year-on-year respectively."
Qingtongxia had 69 mosques in 2009, HRW reported.
The HRW report included satellite imagery of mosque locations with a comparative analysis of their past and present conditions.