By that time of year, the edge of the Taklamakan desert in the far west of China should be overflowing with people. For decades every spring, thousands of Uighur Muslims migrated to the Imam Asim shrine, a group of buildings and fences surrounding a small mud grave believed to contain the remains of a sacred warrior of the 8th century.
Pilgrims from all over Hotan's oasis came in search of healing, fertility, and absolution, traversing the sand in the footsteps of those in front of them. It was one of the biggest sanctuary festivals in the area. People left offerings and tied pieces of cloth on the branches, markers of their prayers.
Visiting a sacred shrine three times, it was believed, was as good as completing the hajj, a journey that many in the underdeveloped south of Xinjiang could not afford.
But this year, the shrine of Imam Asim is empty. His mosque, khaniqah, a place for Sufi rituals and other buildings were toppled, leaving only the tomb. Bids and banners have disappeared.
It is one of more than two dozen Islamic religious sites that have been partially or completely demolished in Xinjiang since 2016, according to an investigation by the Guardian and the open-source journalism website Bellingcat, which offers new evidence of large-scale demolition of mosques in the Chinese. territory where human rights groups say Muslim minorities are suffering from severe religious repression.
Using satellite imagery, analyst Nick Waters of The Guardian and Bellingcat checked the locations of 100 mosques and shrines identified by former residents, researchers, and crowdsourcing mapping tools.
Of the 91 sites surveyed, 31 mosques and two major shrines, including the Imam Asim complex and another site, suffered significant structural damage between 2016 and 2018.
Of these, 15 mosques and both shrines appear to have been completely or almost completely razed. The rest of the damaged mosques had ordinances, domes, and minarets removed.
Nine other sites identified by former Xinjiang residents as mosques, but where the buildings had no obvious indicators of being a mosque like minarets or domes, also appeared to have been destroyed.
In the context of containing religious extremism, China conducts an intensive statewide campaign of mass surveillance and policing of Muslim minorities - many of them Uighurs, a Turkish-speaking group that often has more in common with its Central Asian neighbors than its Chinese compatriots have.
Researchers say that around 1,5 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been sent involuntarily to camps for internment or re-education, allegations that Beijing rejects.
Activists and researchers believe authorities have toppled hundreds, possibly thousands of mosques, as part of the campaign. But the lack of records of these sites - many are small mosques and shrines in villages - difficulties the police give journalists and researchers who travel independently in Xinjiang, and the widespread surveillance of villagers has made it difficult to confirm reports of their destruction.
The sites found by Guardian and Bellingcat corroborate previous reports, as well as signaling a new escalation in the current security barrier: the demolition of sanctuaries. While for years closed, major shrines were not previously reported as demolished.
Researchers say the destruction of shrines that once were places of mass pilgrimage, a key practice for Uighur Muslims, represents a new form of aggression to their culture.
"The images of Imam Asim in ruins are quite shocking. For the most dedicated pilgrims, they would be devastating, "said Rian Thum, an historian of Islam at the University of Nottingham.
Before the repression, pilgrims also traveled 70 kilometers through the desert to reach the shrine of Jafari Sadiq, honoring Jafari Sadiq, a sacred warrior whose spirit would have traveled to Xinjiang to help bring Islam to the region. The tomb, on a cliff in the desert, appears to have been demolished in March of 2018. Buildings to house the pilgrims in a nearby complex also have disappeared, according to satellite images captured this month.
"Nothing could tell the Uighurs more clearly that the Chinese state wants to wrest their culture and break their connection with the land than the desecration of the graves of their ancestors, the sacred shrines that are the milestones of Uyghur history," Thum said.
The Kargilik mosque, in the center of Kargilik's old town in southern Xinjiang, was the largest mosque in the region. People from several villages gathered there every week. Visitors remember their tall towers, impressive entrance and flowers and trees that formed an internal garden.
The mosque, previously identified by online activist Shawn Zhang, appears to have been almost completely destroyed at some point in 2018, with the porter and other buildings removed, according to satellite images analyzed by the Guardian and Bellingcat.
Three local residents, staff at nearby restaurants and a hotel told the Guardian that the mosque had been demolished in the last half-year. "It is gone. It was the largest in Kargilik, "said a restaurant official.
Another important communal mosque, the Yutian Aitika mosque near Hotan, appears to have been removed in March last year. As the largest in its district, the locals gathered here at Islamic festivals. The history of the mosque dates back to 1200.
Although it was included in a list of national historical and cultural sites, its concierge and other buildings were removed at the end of 2018, according to satellite images analyzed by Zhang and confirmed by Waters. The demolished buildings were probably structures that had been renovated in 90 years.
Two local residents who worked near the mosque, a hotel owner and a restaurant employee, told the Guardian that the mosque had been demolished. One resident said she heard that the mosque would be rebuilt, but smaller, to make room for new stores.
"Many mosques are gone. In the past, in all villages, such as in Yutian County, would have one, "said a Chinese restaurant owner in Yutian, who estimates that 80% were demolished.
"Before, mosques were places for Muslims to pray, to hold social gatherings. In recent years, all have been canceled. It's not just in Yutian, but in the whole Hotan area, it's all the same ... everything has been fixed, "he said.
Activists say the destruction of these historic sites is a way of assimilating the next generation of Uyghurs. According to ancient residents, most Uighurs in Xinjiang had already stopped going to mosques, which are usually equipped with surveillance systems. Most require visitors to register their IDs. Mass festivals such as that of the Imam Asim were stopped for years.
Removal of structures, critics said, would make it more difficult for young Uighur people growing up in China to remember their distinctive record.
"If the current generation, you take away their parents and, on the other hand, you destroy the cultural heritage that resembles its origin ... when they grow up, that will be strange to them," said a former resident of Hotan, referring to number of Uighurs believed detained in camps, many of them separated from their families for months, sometimes years.
"Mosques being overthrown is one of the few things we can see physically. What other things are happening that are hidden, that we do not know? That's what's scary, "he said.
"Correction" of Islam
China denies allegations against Muslim minorities, restricts their religious and cultural practices, or sends them to re-education camps. In response to questions about destroyed mosques, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he "was not aware of the situation mentioned."
"China practices freedom of religion and strongly opposes and fights religious extremist thinking. There are more than 20 million Muslims and more than 35.000 mosques in China. The vast majority of believers can engage freely in religious activities according to law, "he said in a faxed statement to the Guardian.
But Beijing is open about its goal of "cleaning up" religions, such as Islam and Christianity, to better suit China's "national conditions."
In January, China approved a five-year plan to "direct Islam to be compatible with socialism." In a speech at the end of March, party secretary Chen Quanguo, who oversaw repression since 2016, said the government in Xinjiang should "improve the conditions of religious places to guide" religion and socialism to mutual adaptation. "
Removing buildings or Islamic features is one way to do this, according to researchers.
"The Xinjiang Islamic architecture, closely related to the Indian and Central Asian styles, publicly exposes the region's links to the larger Islamic world," said David Brophy, a Xinjiang historian at the University of Sydney. "Destroying this architecture serves to smooth the way for efforts to shape a new 'clean' Uyghur Islam."
Experts say the demolition of religious sites marks a return to extreme practices not seen since the Cultural Revolution when mosques and shrines were burned, or in the 1950 decade, when large shrines were turned into museums as a way to discredit them.
Today, authorities describe any changes in the mosques as an effort to "improve" them. In Xinjiang, various policies to upgrade mosques include the addition of electricity, roads, news broadcast, radios and televisions, "cultural bookstores" and toilets. Another includes equipping mosques with computers, air conditioning units and cabinets.
"This is code to allow demolition places that they consider to be on the path of progress or insecure, to progressively but constantly try to eradicate many of the places of worship for Uighurs and Muslim minorities," said James Leibold, an assistant professor. at the University of La Trobe, focusing on ethnic relations.
Critics say authorities are trying to remove even the history of shrines. Rahile Dawut, a prominent Uighur academic who documented shrines in Xinjiang, disappeared in 2017. Her former colleagues and relatives believe she was detained because of her work preserving Uyghur traditions.
Dawut said in an interview on 2012: "In removing these shrines, the Uighur people lose contact with their land. They would no longer have a personal, cultural and spiritual history. After a few years, we would not have a memory of why we live here or where we belong. "
Source: The Guardian