World

NINGXIA (China) – Thousands of Muslims have been gathering at a mosque in north-west China to protest its planned demolition in a rare public pushback.

A large crowd of Hui people, a Muslim ethnic minority, began congregating at the towering Grand Mosque in the town of Weizhou, Ningxia on Thursday, before the Friday deadline of the demolition.

Construction of the mosque was just completed last year cost one million yuan (£114,000), which was entirely paid by local Hui residents, according to sources.

In a widely-circulated government notice dated August 3, officials announced that the mosque would be ‘forcibly demolished’ as it had not been granted the necessary planning and construction permits.

Videos on social media on Thursday showed large crowds gathered outside the mosque, a palatial white structure with towering columns, nine domes and minarets in a Middle Eastern style. A Chinese national flag is seen flying over the building. The protest appeared to be peaceful.

The protest comes as faith groups that were largely tolerated in the past have seen their freedoms shrink as the government seeks to ‘Sinicise’ religions by making the faithful prioritise allegiance to the officially atheist ruling Communist Party.

Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques, Christian churches have been shut down and Bibles seized, and Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools. All religious institutes are now required to fly the national flag.

“People are in a lot of pain,” said Ma Sengming, a 72-year-old man who was at the protest from Thursday morning until Friday afternoon. “Many people were crying. We can’t understand why this is happening.”

Ma said the group shouted “Protect faith in China!” and “Love the country, love the faith!”

The protest comes as faith groups that were largely tolerated in the past have seen their freedoms shrink as the government seeks to “Sinicize” religions by making the faithful prioritise allegiance to the officially atheist ruling Communist Party.

The residents of Weizhou were alarmed by news that the government was planning to demolish the mosque despite initially appearing to approve its construction.

The town’s Communist Party secretary had even made a congratulatory speech at the site when the mosque’s construction began, said Ma Zhiguo, a resident in his late 70s.

The authorities planned to take down eight out of the nine domes topping the mosque on the grounds that the structure was built larger than permitted, Ma said. But community members were standing their ground, he added.

‘How could we allow them to tear down a mosque that is still in good condition?’ he said, adding that the mosque conducts prayers attended by about 30,000 Muslims and was built using believers’ personal funds.

State-sanctioned repression

Public demonstrations are rare in China, where the government is often quick to quash any hint of dissent.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party is cracking down on religious expression and attacking what it calls radical ideas among the country’s more than 20 million Muslims.

In the far west region of Xinjiang, hundreds of thousands of members of the Uighur and Kazakh Muslim minorities have been arbitrarily detained in indoctrination camps where they are forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the party.

Compared with those ethnic groups, the Hui are culturally much closer to China’s Han majority, similar in appearance and speaking a variation of the mainstream Mandarin language.

But recently, reports said authorities have shut down Hui religious schools and Arabic classes and barred children from participating in Muslim activities.