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The plan to remove a mosque's domes in China sparks rare protest

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China witnessed a rare act of dissent last week. Hundreds of residents, at least hundreds, gathered to protect a mosque in southwestern China. Authorities are removing the domes on the mosque as part of a nationwide campaign to eliminate Islamic influence. It's all part of a renewed push to control religion in China. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: For the last five years, the Muslim residents around Najiaying Mosque watched in trepidation as hundreds of other mosques across China were closed down, their domes removed, or they were outright demolished. Najiaying Mosque holds a special place among the estimated 20 to 30 million practicing Muslims in China. It was a mosque that somehow survived when others didn't during a period of persecution in the 1960s called the Cultural Revolution, and the mosque flourished afterwards.

RUSLAN YUSUPOV: You come to witness the revival of Islam in a place that was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

FENG: That's Ruslan Yusupov, an anthropologist doing his post-doctoral work at Harvard University. He spent three years doing field work around the Najiaying Mosque in China's southwest province of Yunnan.

YUSUPOV: So this place is - among Chinese Muslims in Yunnan, especially - known as the center of Islamic education. If you kind of walk through Yunnan Province, you will see many mosques. The imams of many mosques come from Najiaying.

FENG: Since 2018, however, China has been shuttering mosques. Those that survive have their domes removed - part of China's campaign to remove Saudi Arabian and other Middle Eastern influences from the country over fears of religious extremism. Najiaying was rebuilt in 2004 with donations from local residents, and the mosque had full official approval at the time to expand and add domes. This past weekend, however, authorities decreed the domes would be removed and tried to wall off the mosque. That's when residents protested, capturing everything on videos shared online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling, inaudible).

FENG: Social media videos NPR verified, like this one, show hundreds of residents marching and encircling the mosque protectively. A man NPR confirmed to be a local resident spoke to us on the condition of anonymity and that his real voice not be used. He says China's public security ministry is tracking down anyone sharing information digitally, and he fears arrest. Here's an NPR producer reading what he said.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: (Reading) There are drones flying overhead in every neighborhood, tracking anyone who leaves their homes. They've arrested dozens of people already, and all the young people are afraid they will be next.

FENG: He says Chinese soldiers and a paramilitary unit of riot police have already been dispatched in Najiaying. On Sunday, authorities began installing signal jammers preventing residents from accessing high-speed internet and phone services. The resident says he is now living in dread because he's seen China's mass detention and arrests of historically Muslim ethnic Uyghers in the Xinjiang region. First, they removed their mosque domes, he said, then imposed more controls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) We are all too familiar with oppression. We know our fate. We're powerless. But we're just hoping to preserve our last bit of religious freedom and our last shreds of dignity.

FENG: Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.