Like many devout Muslims in Xinjiang, members of Metkurban Metsedi's family have worshipped at a mosque near their home for generations.
Praying at the Id Kah Mosque in Yutian County, Hotan Prefecture, is an essential part of the 49-year-old's life, so he was puzzled when he heard reports that the building had been demolished.
"My grandfather and father both prayed at the mosque, and I grew up living near to it. It is in good condition, and, after renovation work, it is definitely still in use," he said.
"I have no idea why some people would say it has been demolished. If they really care about us, why not pay us a visit in person to see the truth for themselves?"
After the mosque, which has a history of more than 800 years, was listed as a key national cultural relics site in May 2013, efforts were made to renovate it, he added.
Safety improved at religious venues in Xinjiang
There are some 24,400 mosques in Xinjiang, one for every 530 Muslims on average, a higher proportion than in some Islamic countries, Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the United Kingdom, said.
Many mosques in the region were built in the 1980s and 1990s or even earlier, but some of these mud-and-brick structures or small buildings were not well maintained or repaired.
They became unsafe for religious activities, especially in harsh weather conditions, and posed a serious threat in the event of an earthquake. The mosques were also inadequately designed, making worship difficult, the Xinjiang Islamic Association said in a report in November 2020 on the freedom of religion in the region.
It added that the regional government renovated dilapidated mosques and "made adjustments" to those in a dangerous condition.
The report said the mosques have been improved and modernized to accommodate Muslims' needs. They have been equipped with running water, electricity, natural gas, radio and other communications facilities. Roads leading to mosques have been upgraded to make access easier, and medical and public services have been extended to the venues.
Repairs carried out
Ilijan Anayt, spokesman for the regional government, said earlier that the Jiami Mosque, mentioned in a US State Department report, reopened in March 2019 after major renovations were completed.
In September 2018, the gatehouse and gate tower at the mosque, which was built in 1540, were found to pose severe safety hazards. To protect worshippers and ensure religious activities were conducted smoothly, both structures were repaired in February 2019, the spokesman said.
Mosques registered in Xinjiang are protected by law. Democratic management committees are responsible for the internal affairs of mosques and for religious activities. Local governments are required to help mosques improve infrastructure and provide better services to followers to ensure that freedom of religious beliefs is fully protected, the spokesman added.
In Tuohula, Wensu County, Aksu Prefecture, Ablikim Sadiq said he had felt unsafe every time he prayed in the old mosque in the area several years ago.
"There were leaks in the roof and large splits in the wooden pillars supporting the prayer hall. We often feared that the hall would collapse, especially during bad weather," he said.
After carrying out a safety assessment, the local government decided in 2015 to build a new mosque near the old venue.
Ahat Rahman, imam of the township's mosque for 27 years, said: "The new venue can withstand earthquakes and has a bigger prayer hall. The villagers can now concentrate fully during religious activities."
Following urbanization work in Xinjiang in recent years, some worshippers moved to new homes. At their request, the local authorities built new mosques or expanded existing ones to meet demand, according to Bekri Yaqub, director of Yanghang Mosque Democratic Management Committee in Urumqi, the regional capital.
"I've recently seen the blueprint for a new mosque in the city's Saybag District. Muslims there are going to have yet another beautiful and spacious mosque," he said.
Memet Jume, imam of Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, said: "A few mosques in the region had to be torn down, but only because they were in extremely poor condition and could not be renovated. New ones were built for people's safety. There hasn't been one case of a mosque being completely demolished."
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, little disruption has been caused to religious activities in mosques throughout Xinjiang, especially during the holy month of Ramadan, which fell in April and May 2020.
Musa Asan, the Reste Mosque imam, said, "Mosques in Xinjiang reopened immediately after the regional outbreak was brought under control."
Guidelines for religious venues have been put in place during the pandemic, he added.
"We have carefully disinfected and ventilated the mosque. With the aim of protecting our community, we also require people to wear face masks and keep a safe distance during prayers. We have ensured local communities and residents that they can continue practicing their religion safely during the pandemic."
Religious activities also went ahead as usual during Ramadan at Yanghang Mosque in Urumqi.
The venue, built in 1897, is popular among Muslims from all ethnic groups, including Uygur and Hui. Muslims from other countries also visit the mosque for prayers, according to Bekri Yaqub, the Yanghang Mosque Democratic Management Committee director.
"Medical workers were at the site during Ramadan to offer health checks to people who were fasting. The pandemic had little impact on religious activities in Xinjiang during the holy month," he said.
No cases of infection have been reported at locations in the region where religious activities take place, according to the Xinjiang Islamic Association.
It said a series of groundless claims have been made, such as restrictions being placed on freedom of religious belief, ethnic groups denied the right to such belief, mosques being compulsorily demolished and religious figures persecuted.