REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Muslim villagers exploded in anger as Chinese authorities demolished a refurbished mosque scheduled for an opening ceremony Jan. 1, villagers and a human rights organization said.
At least two people were reported killed in a clash between villagers and authorities Friday, with some reports out of Hong Kong suggesting the death toll was as high as five. The incident took place in a village called Taoshan in the Ningxia region of north-central China.
The clash was unusual in that the villagers were Hui, who are more assimilated than other Muslim minorities, like the Uighurs, and are allowed more freedom of religion by the Chinese Communist Party.
"Why they would treat us Muslims like this? We wanted to build this mosque just for prayers. Why they have to demolish it?" wrote one woman who identified herself as Zhe Tao on an Internet bulletin board. The mosque, she said, had been legally registered with the Chinese government since 1998.
Villagers had raised 800,000 Chinese yuan (about $127,000) in donations for a renovation project that had begun in 2010, according to the woman. A large crowd gathered for prayers Friday in anticipation of a formal opening ceremony on Jan. 1.
Late Friday, more than 1,000 members of the police and military moved in from neighboring Gansu province and began demolishing the mosque.
"When the police attempted to knock down the newly built mosque, they were met with vigorous resistance from more than 100 villagers wielding clubs and shovels," a villager named Jin Haitao told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
The police tried to control the crowd with tear gas and water cannons, villagers said. Nevertheless, there were at least two reported deaths. Some villagers reported that three more people died at a hospital.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said at least 50 people were injured and more than 100 detained. Police from Hexi, the nearest town, were quoted in the Hong Kong newspaper as saying that the mosque was demolished because it was an "illegal structure."
Mosques and churches are closely regulated by the Chinese Communist Party, which disapproves of religious worship and restricts the power of religious institutions.
The Hui are a community of about 10 million people, who are practically indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese and speak Mandarin. Although they complain of discrimination themselves, they have at times taken sides with the Chinese authorities against other minority groups, especially the Tibetans.
-- Barbara Demick