China deployed hundreds of police and made arrests in a mostly Muslim southwestern town after clashes erupted over the planned partial demolition of a mosque, witnesses told AFP.
The town of Nagu, Yunnan province, recently pushed ahead with plans to raze four minarets and the dome roof of the Najiaying Mosque, a resident said on Monday, requesting anonymity.
The area is home to a sizable enclave of Hui, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who have come under pressure in the face of a broad crackdown.
On Saturday, dozens of officers wielding truncheons and riot shields repelled a crowd outside the mosque that was hurling objects at them, videos circulating on social media and the witness said.
“They want to proceed with forced demolitions, so the people here went to stop them,” a local woman who also asked not to be identified told AFP.
“The mosque is home for Muslims like us,” she said. “If they try to knock it down, we certainly won’t let them.”
“Buildings are just buildings — they do no harm to people or society. Why do they have to destroy them?”
Police have made an unspecified number of arrests over the incident and several hundred officers remained in the town as of Monday, the two witnesses said.
People in areas around the mosque had struggled intermittently with internet outages and other connectivity issues since the clashes, they added.
A notice issued Sunday by the Tonghai government — which administers Nagu — said it had opened an investigation into “a case that severely disrupted social management and order”.
The notice ordered those involved to “immediately stop all illegal and criminal acts”, vowing to “severely punish” anyone who refuses to turn themselves in.
Those who voluntarily surrender before June 6 will be treated with leniency, the notice added.
Contacted by AFP on Tuesday, an official in Tonghai’s publicity department denied the internet outages, but declined to comment further.
China has sought to more tightly control religion since President Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago, and in its crackdown on Muslims, Beijing claims it is working to combat terrorism and extremist thought.
An estimated one million Uyghurs, Hui and other Muslim minorities have been detained in the western Xinjiang region since 2017 under a government campaign that the United States and rights groups have called a genocide.
And while the impact on communities outside Xinjiang has been milder, many have seen their mosques demolished or “coercively renovated” to match official notions of Chinese aesthetics, said David Stroup, an expert on the Hui at Britain’s University of Manchester.