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Muslim villagers angry in mosque incident

January 3, 2012 |  1:37 pm

REPORTING FROM BEIJING--- Muslim villagers exploded in anger after Chinese authorities demolished a new refurbished mosque on the day they had gathered to celebrate its opening on New Year’s Day. At least two people were reported killed in the ensuing clash, although one villager said the death toll was as high as five.

The incident tool place 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.

The mosque dated back to the Qing dynasty of the 19th century and had been legally registered with the Chinese authorities, said Zhe Tao, the wife of the imam. Muslim families in the village raised 800,000 ($127,000) for a renovation project that began in 2010.

“We refurbished this mosque with our hard work and blood. It is so sad to see it demolished,’’ said Zhe in a telephone interview. “We don’t understand what happened. We never had any interference with our religious life before. We love our country. We love the party.’’

The demolition took place Friday, just after prayers. A large crowd had gathered in the town in anticipation of a formal opening ceremony Jan. 1st. More than 1,000 police and military were sent in from neighboring Gansu province.

"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 teargas and water cannons, villagers said. Nevertheless, there were at least two reported deaths, both said to be older people, including an 80-year-old woman. Zhe said she heard from a relative the police that there were a total number of five deaths.

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 saying that the mosque was demolished because it was an “illegal structure.’’

Ye Shaowu, owner of a small hotel nearby, said that people in the town were saying that the mosque was run by an “evil cult” – language that the Chinese government uses to refer to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

``According to local tradition a mosque should never be demolished,’’ said Ye, who agreed that there had in the past been few tensions between local Muslims and Communist authorities.

The mainland media had no mention of the incident as of Tuesday night.

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 descended from Silk Road traders who intermarried with Chinese. They are practically indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese except for the white skullcaps that many men wear and the occasionally woman in a headscarf. They speak the same Mandarin Chinese. Although they complain of discrimination themselves, they have at times taken sides with the Chinese authorities against other minority groups, especially the Tibetans.

Zhe, the wife of the imam, said she feared the mosque destruction would sour ethnic relations.

 "Obviously this will have an impact on relations between Hui and government,''' she said.

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-- Barbara Demick

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