Officials in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region opened long-closed mosques in the two cities visited last week by the United Nations human rights chief to give the appearance of normalcy despite a severe crackdown on the religion and culture of Muslim Uyghur residents, local police officers and government officials said.
Mosques in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) and Kashgar (Kashi) were opened for a visit by U.N. rights czar Michelle Bachelet during the two days she spent in the region. Bachelet was on a six-day trip to China during which she also stopped in the coastal metropolis of Guangzhou in southern China.
Since about 2017, up to 16,000 mosques, or roughly 65%, of all mosques have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a U.S.-based activist group. Other mosques have been closed but left standing, and a few famous ones remain open but under surveillance.
The moves are part of a larger campaign of repression to erase Uyghur religious practices culture, along with the arbitrary detention of an estimate 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in internment centers and prisons.
China has repeatedly denied it has committed rights abuses against Uyghurs and said the camps were vocational training centers to prevent extremism in the region.
The United States and the parliaments of several Western countries have issued determinations that China’s policies in the XUAR amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.
A person familiar with the situation in Urumqi told RFA that during Bachelet’s visit the Chinese government opened mosques that had long been closed there and in Kashgar.
Local police officers interviewed by RFA also said some central mosques were open to the public in both cities, while other officials confirmed that mosques in Ghulja (Yining), Xinjiang’s third-largest city, which was not on Bachelet’s itinerary, remained closed before and during her trip to the XUAR.
Though most of the mosques in Urumqi had been demolished or closed since 2016, a number have remained open for exhibition since 2020, said another source with knowledge of the situation. Prayer services are rarely performed, however.
Uyghurs urged to pray
Ahead of the U.N. team’s visit to Xinjiang, neighborhood committees urged Uyghurs to begin praying at several prominent mosques, including Urumqi’s Aq Mosque, also known as the White Mosque, said the source, who declined to be named for safety reasons.
A police officer in the area where the Aq Mosque is located said the imam led Friday prayers on May 27 and that the religious building was open for exhibitions.
“The imam of White Mosque led the prayers last Friday. That’s what I know,” he said.
A police official in Kashgar told RFA that the historic Id Kah Mosque, which dates to 1442 and has been closed for worship since 2016, was opened for prayers since Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan that fell on May 1-2 this year.
The official did not say how many people were going to mosque for prayer or whether they were going voluntarily or being forced by their neighborhood committees.
“The only mosque that was opened during the U.N.’s visit was the Id Kah Mosque,” he said.
A second security official in Ghulja said the four mosques in his hamlet were all closed and that Uyghurs were still banned from praying. He also described the situation of people not praying as a positive development.
“We are telling them all the time that they cannot pray and they should not pray at home,” he said. “Before 2017, when people were allowed to pray, they did. But now everyone listens to the government’s new rules on religion and does not pray. It’s been like this since 2016.”
Bachelet first announced that her office sought an unfettered access to Xinjiang in September 2018, shortly after she took over her current role. But the trip was delayed over questions about her freedom of movement through the region.
In March, she announced that her office reached an agreement with the Chinese government about the visit. Her may trip was the first visit to China by a U.N. human rights commissioner since 2005.
Bachelet said that her visit was not an investigation, but a dialogue and exchange between two sides. But Uyghur rights organizations have criticized her for failing to condemn China for its genocidal policies in Xinjiang and called for her resignation.
Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Uyghurs said Bachelet provided no transparency about the trip and that a prison visit in Xinjiang was a “Potemkin-style sham.”
RFA Uyghur has yet to receive a reply to a request for comment from Bachelet’s office.
Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.