Chinese mosque demolition heightens ethnic tensions

Beijing, China - The government demolition of a newly refurbished mosque in a northern Chinese village has raised tensions with the Hui, a Muslim group that in the past has been granted more freedoms by the Chinese Communist Party, unlike other beleaguered minorities such as the Uighurs.

Muslim villagers in Taoshan, a community in the Ningxia region, clashed with authorities who destroyed a refurbished mosque scheduled to reopen on New Year’s Day.

At least two people were reported killed in the fighting Friday, including an 80-year-old woman. One villager said the death toll was as high as five.

The violence was unusual in that the Hui are more assimilated than other Muslim minorities and at times have taken the side of authorities in regard to other minority groups, especially the Tibetans.

"According to local tradition a mosque should never be demolished," said Ye Shaowu, owner of a small hotel nearby, agreeing that there had been little tension in the past between local Muslims and communist authorities.

The mosque dated to the Qing dynasty of the 19th century and had been legally registered with authorities, said Zhe Tao, the wife of the imam. Muslim families in the village had raised $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."

Police from Hexi, the nearest town, were quoted in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post as saying that the mosque was demolished because it was an "illegal structure."

Ye, the hotel owner, said that some villagers had said the mosque was run by an "evil cult" — language that the Chinese government uses to refer to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The destruction occurred just after prayers Friday and was met with opposition from a large crowd gathered in anticipation of a formal opening ceremony Jan. 1.

More than 1,000 members of the police and military deployed from neighboring Gansu province "were met with vigorous resistance from more than 100 villagers wielding clubs and shovels," a villager named Jin Haitao told the Hong Kong newspaper.

The police tried to control the crowd with tear gas and water cannons, villagers said. The two people reported killed were said to be older residents.

The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said at least 50 people were injured and more than 100 detained.

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 Mandarin-speaking community of about 10 million people descended from Silk Road traders who married Chinese. They are practically indistinguishable from the Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group, but for the white skullcaps that many men wear and the headscarves worn by some women.

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.

In western China, clashes have broken out repeatedly between authorities and the Uighurs, a Turkic minority of about 9 million, who say they have been victims of discrimination by the majority Han.