BEIJING: Authorities in northern China delayed the demolition of a massive mosque on Saturday (Aug 11) 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 Saturday, 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 kilometres (nine miles) away from Weizhou -- though residents could still make phone calls.
On Saturday 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 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, 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 Islamic association Saturday went unanswered.
The words "Weizhou mosque" appeared to be censored on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform when AFP tried to search for them.
'SINISISATION' OF RELIGION
Islam 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 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 unauthorised Korans.
Concerns about the mosque standoff in Weizhou appeared to be spreading Saturday, 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".