BEIJING • Hundreds of ethnic Hui Muslims yesterday staged a sit-in protest in China's western region of Ningxia against government plans to demolish a huge new mosque, amid tightening curbs on Islam to pull its practice in line with the Chinese mainstream.
China officially guarantees freedom of religion, but, in recent years, officials nervous about the possibility of radicalisation and violence have tightened controls in heavily Muslim areas.
The Weizhou grand mosque, built in a Middle-Eastern style with domes and minarets, had not received proper permits before construction, officials in the town of Weizhou said in a notice on Aug 3.
The mosque would be forcibly demolished yesterday, they said in the notice, widely circulated among Chinese Muslims on social media.
The order provoked anger among villagers, but talks between mosque representatives and officials have failed to reach an agreement, as worshippers rejected a government plan to spare the mosque if its domes were replaced with pagodas more in keeping with Chinese style, one source in the area told Reuters.
Hundreds of villagers were gathering at the mosque yesterday morning and the town's mayor was expected to hold discussions in the afternoon, added the source, who requested anonymity.
"If we sign, we are selling out our religious faith," a Weizhou mosque supporter said in a note on messaging app WeChat, urging villagers not to sign on to the mosque rebuilding plan.
"I can't talk about this issue," said mosque director Ding Xuexiao, when reached by telephone.
Mosque imam Ma Liguo said the situation was "currently being coordinated".
There was a protest at the mosque yesterday, a man at the Islamic Association, a government religious office in the county, confirmed. He added that the government only wanted the structure "renovated to reduce its scale".
Reuters could not immediately reach the Weizhou government to seek comment, and officials in the surrounding county of Tongxin declined to comment.
Videos on social media on Thursday, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed large crowds gathered outside the mosque and police vans parked nearby. The protest appeared to be peaceful.