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China delays mosque demolition after protest

AFP  |  Weizhou 

Authorities in northern delayed the demolition of a massive today after thousands of people demonstrated to stop its destruction, local residents said, amid a nationwide government drive to tighten restrictions on religious activities.

Across China, officials have sought to limit religious freedoms for Muslims as part of a widespread attempt to bring believers in line with the dictates of the ruling

Protesters began gathering Thursday ahead of a deadline to demolish the grand in the town of in the northern Ningxia region, local residents said. Videos posted on in recent days showed protesters gathering in front of the building as police with riot shields stood by.

Holding Chinese flags, they sat quietly on the building's steps and milled around a large plaza, before heading to Friday night prayers, according to the videos, which could not be verified by AFP.

"The government said it's an illegal building, but it's not. The has several hundred years of history," a restaurant owner surnamed told AFP. Around noon Saturday, a had read a document saying that the government would hold off on the mosque's demolition, locals told AFP.

After that, many who had participated in the sit-in dispersed.

People had come hundreds of kilometres from other Muslim regions to show support and bring to those in Weizhou, locals said.

Hundreds of security forces had at one point been brought in on civilian buses to secure a perimeter around the area, not allowing outsiders in.

Internet and 4G cellphone service had been cut off to the area, resuming only some 14 kilometres (nine miles) away from -- though residents could still make phone calls.

This evening, a few dozen people sat on folded stools or leaned against their motorbikes in another neighbourhood away from the mosque, watching a movie projected onto a near a petrol station.

Police cars occasionally drove past, lights flashing, but it was otherwise peaceful. "They told us the internet was down because of recent rains, but does that really make sense?" said a young man straddling his bike.

"They're afraid of us spreading videos," he aid.

The mosque was rebuilt over the past two years, according to government documents, but the licensing process was not carefully managed and several officials received a "serious warning" from a local disciplinary committee.

In the process, the facade was changed from its previous Chinese style -- featuring sweeping tiled roofs similar to a Buddhist temple -- to what is often described in as an "Arab" design, with domes and crescents.

Concerns have been growing in since the circulation of a government order last week demanding the mosque's demolition on the grounds that it had been rebuilt without the proper permits.

The document said that if the building was not demolished by Friday, August 10, the government would tear it down, locals said. Residents were frustrated because officials had shown support for the construction until now.

Calls to the local county government and the regional Saturday went unanswered.

The words "Weizhou mosque" appeared to be censored on China's Twitter-like platform when AFP tried to search for them.

is one of five officially recognised religions in China, home to some 23 million Muslims.

Pressure has been building on the community in recent months as the moves to tighten the reins on religious expression.

China's top leaders recently called for the "Sinicization" of religious practice -- bringing it in line with "traditional" Chinese values and culture -- and new regulations on religious affairs came into effect in February, sparking concern among rights groups. The measures increased state supervision of in a bid to "block extremism", and in areas with significant Muslim populations, authorities have removed Islamic symbols, such as crescents, from public spaces.

In the far western region of Xinjiang, things have gone much farther, with Muslims being harshly punished for violating regulations banning beards and burqas, and even for the possession of unauthorised Korans.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Sat, August 11 2018. 23:45 IST