Greet Uyghur Han people in Xinjiang

The sand-colored Keriya Aitika Mosque in Xinjiang Province in northwest China is almost 800 years old. The four minarets cast long shadows on old Google Maps images. Hundreds of Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic people who settled along the ancient Silk Road centuries ago, gathered here for Friday prayers.

According to research by activists, the Keriya Aitika Mosque is no longer standing. Just like the Kargilik Mosque in the Chinese administrative district of Kashgar. Traders used to advertise their goods on the spacious forecourt of the mosque with its ornate portal. Last shots of the mosque show a huge, red poster at the entrance with the inscription: "Love the party, love the country". The government propaganda should cover up the Muslim creed in Arabic calligraphy, according to the instructions of Chen Quanguo, who has been responsible for the Xinjiang region as secretary of the Communist Party since August 2016. Mosques there are gradually being deprived of their function - and are now even razed to the ground. The culture and religion of the Muslim Uyghurs is to be wiped out.

It's not the only two cases. Activists keep reporting on Twitter that mosques in Xinjiang are being destroyed. Peter Irwin from the World Uyghur Congress based in Munich even speaks of "thousands of mosques" that have been destroyed in the parts of the country inhabited by Uyghurs over the past three years. China calls the destruction of the houses of prayer "mosque rectification program", says Irwin. This would formalize the annihilation of "a central aspect of Uighur culture".

In 1955, China annexed the homeland of the Uyghurs, calling them the "Xinjiang Autonomous Region". Since then, Uyghurs have been fighting for their right to self-determination, China accuses them of separatism. For a long time, the roughly ten million Uighurs made up the majority of the population in Xinjiang. But the deliberate, often forced settlement of Han Chinese, who make up the majority of the approximately 1.4 billion Chinese, is decreasing their number noticeably.

In camps, numerous Uyghurs have to renounce their religion

The Muslim minority has been systematically discriminated against for years. According to estimates by the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, the state has been holding one million Uyghurs in camps since the beginning of 2017. There the people have to renounce their religion. They have to learn Mandarin Chinese, sing the national anthem, and praise President Xi Jinping. An SZ reporter was there last fall. On the streets he met almost only women and children, old men and Han Chinese. He hardly saw any Uighur men between the ages of 18 and 50.

Beijing initially denied the camps existed. As the evidence intensified, the government spoke of "education and training centers" and subsequently legalized their existence. Beijing justifies the action with extremist currents in Xinjiang and blames the Uyghurs for bloody unrest and terrorist attacks. But every practice of religion is punished. As a Muslim, it is enough to fast or refuse to drink alcohol during Ramadan to be imprisoned without trial. People are not allowed to pray or have a Koran or a prayer rug.

All of this repression follows a plan. The government in Beijing has long tried with all its might to "sinize" Muslims, but also followers of other religions. That is, they should assimilate, adapt to the majority of the Han Chinese. They should stop learning Arabic and stop showing religious symbols. Muslim parents are no longer allowed to name their children Mohammed or Fatima.

China has installed a huge, technically advanced surveillance system in the region. The New York Times reports that the state carried out 500,000 facial scans in one month with the sole aim of determining whether the people scanned were Uyghurs. The facial recognition software used therefore looks out for members of the Muslim minority, tries to recognize them as such based on their appearance and records where the identified people are moving. And not only in Xinjiang, but also in other parts of China. This is the first known example of a government using the possibilities offered by artificial intelligence for racial profiling, writes the New York Times.

It is difficult to ascertain what further repression the regime under President Xi Jinping has undertaken in recent months. In many cities, only a few hotels are allowed to accept foreigners. Since foreigners have to register with the police via the hotel, they are often prevented from continuing their journey freely. Satellite images are therefore one way of obtaining information from the region. Nick Waters has worked for the renowned UK research network Bellingcat publicly available images evaluated - with unsettling results.

He began his research after a tweet from activist and law student Shawn Zhang of the University of British Columbia. Zhang, himself a Han Chinese, could not believe the reports from Western media and did his own research. He was one of the first in the world to succeed in uncovering the secret camps. He has identified 66 so far, and now he asks the next question: "Where has this mosque gone?"

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On Twitter, Zhang places two satellite images of the same place next to each other, one with and one without the entrance gate to the Keriya Aitika Mosque. It was considered an important historical and culturally protected place in China. A demolition requires the approval of the State Council, writes Zhang.

Nick Waters has also asked himself this question and believes that with recordings available on the Internet, he will be able to determine when she disappeared. He compared images from Planet Labs, a start-up that operates one of the largest mini-satellite networks in the world, and concludes from this that the entrance gate to the mosque was still there on March 19, 2018 and a day later "either disappeared or has been greatly changed ". In the case of the Kargilik Mosque, too, high-resolution images from Terra Server, a company that specializes in aerial and satellite photography, show that large parts of the mosque complex have disappeared.

For laypeople it is difficult to see anything in the pictures due to the poor resolution. When asked, Waters explains why he is very sure of his cause. He attaches this to the shadow of the building, which can still be seen on March 19, but not the next day. "The shadow of the other buildings has not changed significantly, so it cannot be the time of day or the weather conditions that could explain the disappearance of the shadow," explains Waters.

Despite the evidence, an outcry from the Muslim world is not to be expected: States such as Egypt or Pakistan extradited Uyghur students at Beijing's request. The Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which consists of 57 member states, has not yet done anything against the systematic repression of Muslims in China. Many of them maintain important economic relations with China and do not want to endanger them, even with a view to the Chinese megaproject of the "New Silk Road". In December there was a brief glimmer of hope. The OIC expressed concern about the situation of Muslims in Xinjiang, which should be monitored. But China responded with a diplomatic offensive on the Muslim world, granted eight OIC officials a 10-day tour of Xinjiang and strengthened bilateral relations, for example with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In February, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and expressed his admiration for China's efforts "in the fight against terrorism".

When the OIC Foreign Ministers met again in Abu Dhabi in March, the final resolution said that the results of the visit were welcomed and thanked for the invitation. Finally, there was praise for "China's efforts to look after its Muslim citizens." We look forward to further cooperation between OIC countries and the People's Republic of China.