China Is Erasing Mosques and Precious Shrines in Xinjiang

Until a decade ago, the pilgrims would travel by bus, car, donkey and foot to gather by the thousands at the Imam Asim Shrine in the desert on China’s western frontier.

They trudged through the sand dunes to kneel at the sacred site dedicated to Imam Asim, a Muslim holy man who helped defeat the Buddhist kingdom that had ruled here over a thousand years ago. The devotees were Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, and often joined annual festivals to pray for abundant harvests, good health and strong babies.

They tied strips of cloth carrying prayerful messages to wooden posts around and near the shrine. They delighted in fairground amusements on the site’s edge, where magicians, wrestlers and musicians entertained the crowds. They clustered around storytellers reciting ancient tales.

Thousands of pilgrims were praying at the Imam Asim Shrine in 2009.Video by Rahile Dawut and her students

“It was not just a pilgrimage. There were performers, games, food, seesaws for the children, poetry reading, and a whole area for story-telling,” said Tamar Mayer, a professor at Middlebury College who visited the Imam Asim Shrine for research in 2008 and 2009. “It was still so full of people, and full of life.”

Even then the authorities were trying to limit the crowds at the shrine with checkpoints. By 2014, pilgrims had been almost entirely banned. And by last year, much of the shrine had been demolished. Wooden fences and poles that once encircled the tomb and held fluttering prayer flags had been torn down. Satellite images show that a mosque at the site was leveled. All that remained was the mud-brick building marking the tomb of Imam Asim, which appeared to be intact amid the ruins.

Imam Asim Shrine

March 2011

June 2020

Satellite images by Maxar Technologies

The Chinese authorities have in recent years closed and demolished many of the major shrines, mosques and other holy sites across Xinjiang that have long preserved the culture and Islamic beliefs of the region’s Muslims.

The effort to close off and erase these sites is part of China’s broader campaign to turn the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and members of other Central Asian ethnic groups into loyal followers of the Communist Party. The assimilation drive has led to the detention of hundreds of thousands in indoctrination centers.

The new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a research group based in Canberra, systematically gauges the degree of destruction and alteration to religious sites in recent years. It estimated that around 8,500 mosques across Xinjiang have been completely demolished since 2017 — more than a third of the number of mosques the government says are in the region.

“What it does show is a campaign of demolition and erasure that is unprecedented since the Cultural Revolution,” said Nathan Ruser, the researcher at the institute who led the analysis. During the decade-long turmoil that unfolded from 1966 under Mao Zedong, many mosques and other religious sites were destroyed.


Destroyed or

significantly damaged

religious sites

Destroyed or significantly damaged religious sites


Sources: Locations of destroyed and damaged religious sites from Australian Strategic Policy Institute; Satellite image from Bing Maps

The institute, also known as ASPI, compiled a randomized sample of 533 known mosque sites across Xinjiang, and analyzed satellite images of each site taken at different times to assess changes. It studied the state of the region’s shrines, cemeteries and other sacred sites through a sample of 382 locations taken from a state-sponsored survey and online records.

The Chinese government has dismissed reports of widespread demolition of religious sites as “total nonsense” and said that it values the protection and repair of mosques.

Chinese officials have accused the Australian Strategic Policy Institute of seeking to malign China, and pointed to its funding from the United States government as evidence that its findings are biased. The institute rejects that claim, saying its research is completely independent from its funders.

The authorities have placed tight controls on movement within Xinjiang and curbed the flow of information out of the region, making it a challenge to assess the scale of the destruction on the ground. The New York Times verified many of the details in ASPI’s report by studying satellite images and visiting sites across southern Xinjiang last year.

“What we see here is the deliberate destruction of sites which are in every way the heritage of the Uighur people and the heritage of this land,” said Rachel Harris, an expert on Uighur music and culture at the University of London who reviewed the report.

During festival time in 2008, the Imam Asim Shrine also included a fairground area of entertainment and children’s rides.Tamar Mayer

Many of the shrines and cemeteries that the authorities have recently closed or razed embodied the Uighurs’ diverse Islamic traditions. Pilgrims would visit shrines, known locally as “mazar,” with food offerings, goat horns and animal hides to show their piety, or cloth dolls embodying their hopes for a healthy child. Some spent weeks traveling from one sacred site to another.

Large shrines are often gravesites of imams, merchants and soldiers who spread Islam in the region over a thousand years ago. Some are imposing complexes built and rebuilt over the centuries. But a tree or pile of stones can also serve as a shrine, marking a holy presence for villagers.

At Ordam, a famed shrine in the desert of southern Xinjiang, pilgrims had been gathering for more than 400 years years to celebrate the memory of a leader who brought Islam to the region and fought a rival Buddhist kingdom.

“If you have a donkey and a cart, you load up your food and you spend three weeks to get to a shrine,” said Rian Thum, a researcher at the University of Nottingham who has studied Ordam and other shrines and their fate. “The only place I’ve seen a grown Uighur man cry was at a shrine.”

But in the 1990s, the Chinese government grew increasingly nervous about the expansion of mosques and revival of shrines in Xinjiang. Officials saw the gathering of pilgrims as kindling for uncontrolled religious devotion and extremism, and a spate of antigovernment attacks by discontented Uighurs set the authorities on edge.

A Uighur Muezzin calls the evening prayer from the rooftop of a mosque in the unrestored section of the old city of Kashgar, Xinjiang, in 2015.Adam Dean for The New York Times

A closed mosque in the renovated old city of Kashgar last year. The crescent has been removed from the top.The New York Times

The interior of a desecrated mosque turned into a bar in Kashgar last year.The New York Times

A mosque turned into a shop on a commercial street of Kashgar last year. The former mosque is the building with a black sign on the right.The New York Times

The authorities banned festivals and pilgrimages at Ordam in 1997, and other shrines closed in the following years.

Still, some visitors and tourists crept in to visit.

“One Uighur who had managed to visit Ordam told some of the villagers nearby that she had been, and they started weeping and one asked for some dust from her jacket,” Mr. Thum recalled. “This gives a sense how important this place is to people, even when they cannot visit.”

The previous closures and bans on visits to the shrines were a prelude to a more aggressive campaign by the government.

By early 2018, the Ordam shrine, isolated in the desert and almost 50 miles from the nearest town, had been leveled, eradicating one of most important sites of Uighur heritage. Satellite images from that time showed the shrine’s mosque, prayer hall and simple housing where its custodians once lived had been razed. There is no news of what happened to the huge cooking pots where pilgrims left meat, grain and vegetables that custodians of the shrine cooked into holy meals.

Ordam Shrine

May 2011

Oct. 2018

Satellite images by Maxar Technologies

“You see a real and what seems to be a conscious effort at destroying places that are important to Uighurs, precisely because they are important to Uighurs,” Mr. Thum said.

In some instances, the government has demolished mosques in the name of development. When Times reporters visited the city of Hotan in southern Xinjiang last year, we found a new park where satellite images showed there had been a mosque until late 2017.

We found four other sites in the city where mosques once stood that were now new parks or bare patches of ground, and one mosque that was half-torn down. The main central mosque in Hotan remains, though only a trickle of people attend, even for Friday prayers.

In Kashgar, the major city in southern Xinjiang, nearly all of the mosques in the center of town appeared shut, with furniture stacked up inside, gathering dust. One mosque had been turned into a bar.

“It’s like I’m losing my family members around me because our culture is being taken away,” said Mamutjan Abdurehim, a Uighur graduate student from Kashgar who now lives in Australia and has been seeking information about his wife in Xinjiang. “It’s like a part of our flesh, our body, is being removed.”

Not every religious site has been razed. Some are now official tourist attractions, and no longer serve as pilgrimage sites, like the famed Afaq Khoja Mausoleum in Kashgar. A sprawling Uighur cemetery on the edge of Kashgar has so far survived and families stopped to tidy graves and pay their respects.

Uighurs noted that shrines had been destroyed in previous decades then rebuilt, and that they could rise again. But they were daunted by the scale of the recent eradication.

“The intensity of this crackdown is quite shocking,” Mr. Abdurehim said. “Many Uighurs who would like to be hopeful are quite pessimistic, including me.”

A Uighur family visited the grave of a relative at a muslim cemetery in Kashgar last year.The New York Times

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