The Jiaman mosque in the city of Qira, in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang, is hidden behind high walls and Communist Party propaganda signs, leaving passersby with no indication that it is home to a religious site.
There are no Muslims like that here anymore,” the woman said, referring to those who used to pray at the mosque. She added: “Life in Xinjiang is beautiful.”
Some state-sanctioned mosques are shown off to visiting journalists and diplomats, like the Jiaman Mosque in Hotan.
“Everything is paid for by the party,” said a Hotan official at the mosque on a visit arranged for Reuters by the city propaganda department.
The official, who went by the nickname “Ade” but declined to give his full name, said men were free to pray at the mosque five times a day, according to Islamic custom.
While reporters were there, several dozen men, most of them elderly, came to pray as dusk fell. Afterwards, they broke their fast with food provided by the local government.
The mosque, more than 170 years old, is one of four in the region earmarked as cultural relics, with funds for renovation from the central government, the Xinjiang government said.
As the mosque’s leader or imam removed his shoes, Ade demonstrated a machine given by the government that shrink-wraps shoes in plastic.
“Now you don’t even need to take your shoes off in the mosque, it’s very convenient,” he said.
In Changji, about 40 km west of the regional capital, Urumqi, green and red minarets of the city’s Xinqu Mosque lay broken below a Chinese flag flying over the deserted building’s courtyard.
Reuters analysed satellite imagery of 10 mosques in Changji city and visited six of them.
A total of 31 minarets and 12 green or gold domes had been removed within a period of two months after April 2018, according to dated images.
At several mosques, Islamic architecture was replaced with Chinese-style roofing. These included Changji’s Tianchi road mosque, whose gold dome and minarets were removed in 2018, according to publicly available satellite images.
The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment on the state of mosques in the region.
Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated in 2020, after a survey of 900 Xinjiang locations, that 16,000 mosques had been partially or completely destroyed over the previous three years.
Signs outside the Xinqu Mosque, with the crumbling minarets, said a housing development would soon be built on the site.
“For ethic unity, build a beautiful Xinjiang,” a sign read.