China de­lays raz­ing mosque af­ter protest

Kuwait Times - - Front Page -

WEIZHOU, China: Au­thor­i­ties in north­ern China de­layed the de­mo­li­tion of a mas­sive mosque yes­ter­day 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 Com­mu­nist Party. Protesters be­gan gath­er­ing Thurs­day ahead of a dead­line to de­mol­ish the grand mosque in the town of Weizhou in the north­ern Ningxia re­gion, lo­cal res­i­dents said.

Videos posted on so­cial me­dia 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 mosque has sev­eral hun­dred years of his­tory,” a restau­rant owner sur­named Ma told AFP. Around noon yes­ter­day, a lo­cal of­fi­cial 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

food 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 km away from Weizhou - though res­i­dents could still make phone calls.

Yes­ter­day evening, a few dozen peo­ple sat on folded stools or leaned against their mo­tor­bikes in an­other neigh­bor­hood away from the mosque, watch­ing a movie pro­jected onto a ce­ment wall 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 China as an “Arab” de­sign, with domes and cres­cents.

Con­cerns have been grow­ing in Weizhou 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, Aug 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 Is­lamic as­so­ci­a­tion yes­ter­day went unan­swered. The words “Weizhou mosque” ap­peared to be cen­sored on China’s Twit­ter­like Weibo plat­form when AFP tried to search for them.

Is­lam is one of five of­fi­cially rec­og­nized re­li­gions in China, home to some 23 mil­lion Mus­lims. Pres­sure has been build­ing on the com­mu­nity in re­cent months as the Com­mu­nist party 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 re­li­gion 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 unau­tho­rized Qu­rans.

Con­cerns about the mosque stand­off in Weizhou ap­peared to be spread­ing yes­ter­day, as Mus­lims in other re­gions ex­pressed sol­i­dar­ity with the protesters. “We are qui­etly wait­ing to see that the prob­lem is sat­is­fac­to­rily re­solved,” said one open let­ter posted on Weibo by a mosque in Shanxi prov­ince. If it is not, “we re­serve the le­gal right to go to Ningxia or call on the cen­tral gov­ern­ment to pe­ti­tion”. — AFP

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