Thousands of Chinese Muslims gathered at a mosque Friday to try to stop it from being demolished by the government.
Earlier this month the local government in the town of Weizou, in the autonomous region of Ningxia in Northwest China, issued an order that the mosque be destroyed by Aug. 10 as it did not have the correct construction permits.
In response, in a rare show of public defiance against Chinese authorities, a group of local residents from the Hui Muslim minority group gathered in front of the Weizhou government’s building Aug 6.
The Hui people are generally integrated with the majority Han Chinese, as most speak Mandarin, but some conservative members of the community wear white caps or headscarves.
Meanwhile, with domes that are more often found in the Middle East, the Weizhou Grand Mosque was rebuilt last year to replace a 600-year-old Chinese-style mosque that was destroyed decades ago during the Cultural Revolution.
In a video shared by Muslim poet Ismaelan on Twitter, a group of male protesters stretched out three large banners outside the mosque and kept chanting, “We promise to resolutely support the Chinese Communist Party, defend ethnic unity, and ensure citizens’ religious freedom.”
A much bigger protest was then organized Aug. 7, as hundreds of local residents gathered at the square outside the mosque at noon while large numbers of police could also be seen arriving at the scene. By early afternoon, the square was filled with local residents who were anxiously looking toward the mosque, waiting to see whether the police would make any move or not.
Even though the number of protesters continued to grow, the scene outside the mosque remained peaceful as demonstrators decided to defend the mosque through a sit-in.
Police could be seen circling the growing crowd that gathered outside the staircases leading up to the mosque’s entrance.
According to reports, the protest Thursday went far into the night, and local government officials arrived at midnight to persuade the crowd to go home while promising that they would not damage the mosque until a viable plan was agreed upon by local officials and residents.
It was later reported that the government proposed not to demolish the mosque, but to remove the eight domes of the building instead.
And on Friday, local residents continued the protest at the mosque, as many of them gathered inside to participate in the Friday prayer, according to a video shared by Ismaelan on Twitter.
A local resident later told BuzzFeed News that hundreds of protesters remained at the mosque as night fell, and they were all peacefully waiting to see if the government would take any sudden action.
“There are hundreds of us at the mosque, and we are just waiting to see what will happen,” Su Tse-rong told BuzzFeed News over the phone. “We don’t want to let the government demolish the mosque, but if they insist on tearing it down, there is nothing we can do to save it.”
According to Ismaelan and Su, the local government knew about the mosque’s construction three years ago, and never asked the community to halt the plan. Since residents say the construction was funded entirely by the local community, they were confused when they learned about the government’s order to tear down the mosque.
“The mosque is rebuilt entirely out of the local community’s donation, and we were all shocked when the government announced that we had until Friday to destroy the mosque,” Su said. “This mosque is very important to us because we come here to pray every day, and we respect Islam.”
Su said that he believed it was not the central government’s intention to demolish the mosque, and the mosque had definitely not received any funding from abroad.
“Many residents, especially the elderly people, put every penny that they had earned to the reconstruction of the mosque,” Su explained to BuzzFeed News.
The protest is a rare sign of public resistance against the Chinese government’s plan to “Sinicize” religion across the country. It also came at a time when Beijing continues its nationwide crackdown on religious freedom, putting thousands of Uighur and Kazakh Muslim minorities in Xinjiang into re-education camps while forcing countless religious institutions to infuse Chinese characteristics into their practices.
While Hui are culturally closer to the majority Han Chinese in China, there are still recent reports that government officials have tried to bar Hui children from attending religious schools or Arabic classes.
On China’s popular microblog site Weibo, many users expressed their support for the local government’s decision to demolish the mosque, emphasizing that illegal buildings should be demolished according to law, even if the government has to face fierce opposition.
Su said the protest will likely continue throughout the weekend as long as the government doesn’t actually start demolishing the mosque.