China blames local officials for protest over mosque razing

BEIJING (AP) — A rare public protest by thousands of Hui Muslims this month was caused by local officials’ recklessness, Chinese authorities said Thursday, without settling concerns a large mosque in the northwestern region would be razed.

The governor of the region of Ningxia and a regional Communist Party official said tensions had died out in the city of Weizhou, where thousands protested in early August to prevent authorities from demolishing the towering Grand Mosque. The protests were an unusually bold display of resistance against the party’s efforts to dictate how religion is practiced.

“This incident is a result of an oversimplified administrative decision by the local government. It originally should not have happened,” said Bai Shangcheng, director-general of the regional Communist Party committee’s United Front Work Department, which oversees religious groups. Local officials have been ordered to review the incident and “handle it properly,” Bai said at a news conference in Beijing.

“Now, overall, the situation is under control,” he said.

The Hui are an Islamic ethnic minority descended from Chinese converts and Muslims who came to China as traders. Unlike China’s other main Muslim group, the Uighurs, Hui generally speak Chinese and follow many Chinese cultural practices.

The Weizhou protest came as religious groups have seen their freedoms shrink as the government seeks to “Sinicize” religions by making the faithful prioritize allegiance to the officially atheist Communist Party. Mosques and churches have been stripped of religious imagery and Tibetan children moved from Buddhist temples to public schools.

The Communist Party secretary of Ningxia was out of the region when the protests erupted, Bai said, delaying an official response. After the secretary returned, officials held emergency meetings, ordered the local government to review its actions, and spoke directly with the Weizhou community, he said.

“Our people in Ningxia and Weizhou county are living in unity and harmony,” Xian Hui, the governor of Ningxia, said at the news conference. “The people are in a good mood.”

The mosque is an imposing white building that dwarfs the surrounding brick and concrete homes. Its architecture of four minarets and nine domes tipped with crescent moons would be at home anywhere in the Islamic world, save for the large red and yellow Chinese flags fluttering from the ramparts and the wide central staircase.

The city’s authorities at the time were clearly nervous about the unrest. They detained AP reporters and kept them from conducting interviews at the mosque, ultimately chasing them out of Weizhou.

Despite the assurances of local calm, Bai, the party official, said the Grand Mosque itself was still an unresolved issue. He gave no details but the county disciplinary inspection commission said in May that Weizhou authorities had failed to properly inspect what it said was an illegal expansion in the construction of the Grand Mosque.

“This mosque has differences with other mosques,” Bai said.

Citing the need for party guidance on religious affairs, he said, “I believe we will be able to work out a solution on the matter to the satisfaction of all.”