Authorities in northern China delayed the demolition of a massive mosque on Saturday after thousands of people demonstrated to stop its destruction, local residents said, amid a nationwide government drive to tighten restrictions on religious activities.
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.
About noon on Saturday, a local official read a document saying that the government would hold off on the mosque’s demolition, local people said.
After that, many who had taken part in the protest dispersed.
People had come hundreds of kilometres from other Muslim regions to show support and bring food to those in Weizhou, locals 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.
“The government said it’s an illegal building, but it’s not. The mosque has several hundred years of history,” said a restaurant owner surnamed Ma.
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 services had been cut off to the area, resuming only about 14km (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 service 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, 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 on 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.