A senior UK diplomat has taken to social media to comment on the removal of minarets at several mosques in western China, drawing attention to the ongoing crackdown against Muslims in the country.
Britain's deputy head of mission in China, Christina Scott, this week posted a photo on Twitter of the Dongguan Mosque, as it appeared in a guidebook, next to a present-day photo of the mosque without its Islamic-style dome and minarets.
"Guidebook getting out of date. Go to the Dongguan Great Mosque, it advises. So I do. Closed for renovations which seem to have included removing the dome and minarets," Ms Scott wrote.
One person replied: "When I was there in July, the minarets were still visible."
Several people replied to Ms Scott's post with older photos of the mosque, showing it once featured a large green dome and two tall minarets, incorporating elements of both traditional Islamic and Chinese architecture.
Dongguan Mosque — the longest standing in Qinghai province, near the Xinjiang region — was built more than 600 years ago in the 14th century during the Ming dynasty.
Ms Scott noted the Islamic crescent had been removed from a separate mosque nearby.
The changes to the mosques come amid an ongoing crackdown on Muslims and other faith communities under the ruling Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) "Sinicisation" of religion.
"The ultimate hope of the CCP is to eradicate faiths and movements that sit outside of the CCP," Anna Hayes, a senior lecturer in political science at James Cook University, said.
"We saw this with the [ongoing] crackdowns and persecution on Falun Gong in the 1990s, and we've long seen it in terms of Tibetans, house Christians, Muslims and so forth.
"Out of this religious void, the CCP believes the people will replace religion and religious belief with love and devotion towards the party."
Islamic connections to outside world 'potentially suspect'
The Chinese government launched a five-year plan in 2018 to "Sinicise" Islam.
Under the plan, Islamic teachings are required to promote "Islam with Chinese characteristics" and patriotism.
"The Chinese government wants Islam in China to look and sound more Chinese," David Brophy, an expert on western China at the University of Sydney, said.
"Anything that symbolises a connection to the wider Islamic world is therefore potentially suspect.
"In this case, we see that buildings which resemble Islamic architecture in South Asia or the Middle East are having their distinctive domes removed," Dr Brophy said.
"This has been going on across the country, and not just in relation to religious buildings."
A 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated that some 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang had been destroyed since 2017.
The Chinese government has dismissed such reports as "slanderous rumours".
Mosques with "splendid Arabic architecture" now outnumbered schools in some poor Chinese counties, wrote Xi Wuyi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in an essay posted to the social media platform Weibo.
Professor Xi said the construction of mosques was increasing in underdeveloped parts of western China, funded by countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Chinese authorities say the country is home to "more mosques per capita than many Muslim countries".
Nevertheless, President Xi Jinping has pushed for the development of "religion with Chinese characteristics".
Expert says UK working to 'embarrass' China
Since 2017, the Chinese government has been accused of rights abuses including mass detention, forced labour and surveillence in Xinjang, which it says are necessary to fight "extremism".
While Turkic-speaking Uyghurs and other groups such as Kazakhs have been subject to the strongest measures, in recent years there have also been reports of growing restrictions on worship for Hui Muslims, who are culturally more similar to China's Han majority.
For example, in 2018 Hui Muslims gathered to try to stop the demolition of a mosque in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, which authorities said had been built without permission.
Ms Scott, the UK diplomat, last year posted on Twitter about the removal of the dome and minarets of another mosque in Ningxia Hui, where more than a third of the population is Muslim.
"The purpose is clearly to embarrass the Chinese government and call attention to the issue," Dr Brophy said of the posts.
"The restriction of expressions of Islamic piety is now a sensitive topic in Sino-UK diplomacy, with some British figures recently receiving sanctions from China for their public advocacy on behalf of the Uyghurs."
Social media posts this week indicated Ms Scott had also travelled to Tibet, where Beijing has attempted to Sinicise and impose "cultural unity" on Tibetan Buddhists since taking over the territory in the mid-20th century.
The Dalai Lama has called China's policies in Tibet "genocide", a term also used by some Uyghur advocates to describe the crackdown against Muslims in Xinjiang.
This month a people's Uyghur Tribunal is taking place in London to assess whether China's alleged rights abuses against the Uyghur people constitutes genocide.
"Given the number of mosques, shrines and holy sites that have been severely damaged or destroyed across Xinjiang, many of which are significant historical as well as religious sites, countries like Australia need to push organisations such as UNESCO and ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) to condemn China and put them on notice," Dr Hayes said.
"This is not acceptable behaviour from a great power and should be condemned."
A number of Western nations' parliaments, including the US, Canada and the UK, have already labelled China's policies toward Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang genocide.
The Chinese foreign ministry and British embassy in Beijing were contacted for comment but did not respond by deadline.