The Burning Houses of Worship We Missed

What touches our hearts and what doesn’t? What stays in our minds and what slips out?

Across the world, houses of worship have been burning. In Paris, the Notre Dame Cathedral still smolders; in Jerusalem, a brief fire frightened the faithful at the al-Aqsa Mosque; and in Louisiana, the son of a deputy sheriff was arrested for allegedly torching three Black churches.

Each fire was upsetting in its own way. Al-Aqsa and Notre Dame are world-historical buildings, and, although the former turned out to be no big deal, I for one feel a twinge of concern whenever anything happens in Jerusalem. Notre Dame will take years and millions of euros to rebuild. The American church fires are just one more infuriating symptom of a nation turning against its own citizens, though it is encouraging that, in the wake of Notre Dame, donations to the Louisiana churches have begun to surge.

I wouldn’t underplay the seriousness of what happened in Paris, Jerusalem, and Louisiana. But I do find it fascinating, in a depressing way, that a 13th century mosque has been willfully demolished, and a 16th century mosque forcibly converted into a Communist propaganda center, but that you wouldn’t know a thing about either unless you actively follow the issues facing minority religions.

The Koriya Mosque in Western China reportedly dates from 1237. Last week the Guardian published satellite images of the mosque in a kind of grotesque before-and-after. The first image, from 2017, shows the mosque from above, casting an elongated shadow. The second image shows “a smooth patch of earth.”

There’s a less radical but nevertheless disturbing story about China’s Kargilik Mosque. According to Radio Free Asia, the Chinese authorities stripped the 16th century building of its Islamic imagery and festooned it instead with banners proclaiming, “Love the Party, Love the Country.”

The destruction and desecration of the mosques is part of a larger Chinese governmental effort to expunge Islam from China. It’s directed against the Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic group spread throughout Central and East Asia. More than 11 million Uighurs live in Xianjiang District of Western China, where officials have reportedly bulldozed over 800 mosques.

Authorities have also detained hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in re-education camps. The scale of the suffering is difficult to imagine.

In fairness, there’s been a lot of good reporting about the plight of the Uighurs. And yet I believe the outpouring of emotion for more recognizable places—especially Notre Dame—is instructive.

Samuel Johnson defined sympathy—or what we might now call “empathy”—as an “act of the imagination.” To put it less elegantly, when trying to understand the pain of others, we need to imagine ourselves in their shoes. And it’s simply human nature for us to be more touched by the familiar.

I don’t have any simple answers. But I can say that unless we fight against that impulse, we’re consigning the weakest of the world—which often are members of minority religions—to massive suffering, to ethnic cleansing, to genocide.

Anyone remember the Yazidis? The Rohingya?