Thousands in China mosque standoff over demolition plan

An ethnic Uighur man talks on the phone in front of the Id Kah Mosque in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, in this March 22, 2017 file photo. (REUTERS)
Updated 10 August 2018
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Thousands in China mosque standoff over demolition plan

  • The move comes as China’s officially atheist ruling Communist Party is cracking down on religious expression
  • The Hui are culturally much closer to China’s Han majority

BEIJING: Thousands of Muslims gathered at a mosque in northwestern China on Friday to protest its planned demolition in a rare, public pushback to the government's efforts to rewrite how religions are practiced in the country.
A large crowd of Hui people, a Muslim ethnic minority, began congregating at the towering Grand Mosque in the town of Weizhou on Thursday, local Hui residents told The Associated Press by phone.
"People are in a lot of pain," said Ma Sengming, a 72-year-old man who was at the protest from Thursday morning until Friday afternoon. "Many people were crying. We can't understand why this is happening."
Ma said the group shouted "Protect faith in China!" and "Love the country, love the faith!"
The protest comes as faith groups that were largely tolerated in the past have seen their freedoms shrink as the government seeks to "Sinicize" religions by making the faithful prioritize allegiance to the officially atheist ruling Communist Party. Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques, Christian churches have been shut down and Bibles seized, and Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools.
The residents of Weizhou were alarmed by news that the government was planning to demolish the mosque despite initially appearing to approve its construction, which was completed just last year.
The town's Communist Party secretary had even made a congratulatory speech at the site when the mosque's construction began, said Ma Zhiguo, a resident in his late 70s.
The authorities planned to take down eight out of the nine domes topping the mosque on the grounds that the structure was built larger than permitted, Ma said. But community members were standing their ground, he added.
"How could we allow them to tear down a mosque that is still in good condition?" he said, adding that the mosque conducts prayers attended by about 30,000 Muslims and was built using believers' personal funds. Photos online show the mosque to be a palatial white structure, with towering columns, vertical windows and a Chinese national flag erected out front.
Officials in the county and city propaganda offices said they were not aware of the situation. Other local authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.
In May, the county disciplinary inspection commission published a notice saying that Weizhou authorities had failed to properly oversee the construction of the Grand Mosque. As a result of lax supervision, the notice said, four mosques in the county had received a total of 1.07 million yuan ($156,148) in foreign donations. It did not specify whether the Grand Mosque was among the four.
Ma Sengming said protesters remained at the mosque through the night from Thursday to Friday and were twice visited by a local official who encouraged them to go home. Ma said the official did not make any specific promises, but tried to assure the protesters that the government would work with them on the matter.
More than a hundred police officers surrounded the mosque, but did not attempt to stop the protest, according to Ma.
Public demonstrations are rare in China, where the government is often quick to quash any hint of dissent. Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party is cracking down on religious expression and attacking what it calls radical ideas among the country's more than 20 million Muslims.
In the far west region of Xinjiang, following sporadic violent attacks by radical Muslim separatists, hundreds of thousands of members of the Uighur and Kazakh Muslim minorities have been arbitrarily detained in indoctrination camps where they are forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the party.
Compared to those ethnic groups, the Hui are culturally much closer to China's Han majority, similar in appearance and speaking a variation of the mainstream Mandarin language.
But recently, reports said authorities have shut down Hui religious schools and Arabic classes and barred children from participating in Muslim activities.
James Leibold, a scholar of Chinese ethnic policies at Melbourne's La Trobe University, said the proposed demolition of the Weizhou mosque appeared to be part of a recent "far more assimilatory policy" toward ethnic minorities.
"The ultimate agenda is to erode minority identity and create a sense of belonging and connection to Chinese identity and Chinese culture," Leibold said.


Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

Updated 3 min 57 sec ago
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Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

  • The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election
  • The company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations

Microsoft said Tuesday it has uncovered new Russian hacking attempts targeting US political groups ahead of the midterm elections.
The company said that a hacking group tied to the Russian government created fake Internet domains that appeared to spoof two American conservative organizations: the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute. Three other fake domains were designed to look as if they belonged to the US Senate.
Microsoft didn’t offer any further description of the fake sites.
The revelation came just weeks after a similar Microsoft discovery led Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is running for re-election, to reveal that Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network.
The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election, which US intelligence officials have said were focused on helping to elect Republican Donald Trump to the presidency by hurting his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
This time, more than helping one political party over another, “this activity is most fundamentally focused on disrupting democracy,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said in an interview this week.
Smith said there is no sign the hackers were successful in persuading anyone to click on the fake websites, which could have exposed a target victim to computer infiltration, hidden surveillance and data theft. Both conservative think tanks said they have tried to be vigilant about “spear-phishing” email attacks because their global pro-democracy work has frequently drawn the ire of authoritarian governments.
“We’re glad that our work is attracting the attention of bad actors,” said Hudson Institute spokesman David Tell. “It means we’re having an effect, presumably.”
The International Republican Institute is led by a board that includes six Republican senators, and one prominent Russia critic and Senate hopeful, Mitt Romney, who is running for a Utah seat this fall.
Microsoft calls the hacking group Strontium; others call it Fancy Bear or APT28. An indictment from US special counsel Robert Mueller has tied it to Russian’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU, and to the 2016 email hacking of both the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
“We have no doubt in our minds” who is responsible, Smith said.
Microsoft has waged a legal battle with Strontium since suing it in a Virginia federal court in summer 2016. The company obtained court approval last year allowing it to seize certain fake domains created by the group. It has so far used the courts to shut down 84 fake websites created by the group, including the most recent six announced Tuesday.
Microsoft has argued in court that by setting up fake but realistic-looking domains, the hackers were misusing Microsoft trademarks and services to hack into targeted computer networks, install malware and steal sensitive emails and other data.
Smith also announced Tuesday that the company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations, at least so long as they’re already using Microsoft’s Office 365 productivity software. Facebook and Google have also promoted similar tools to combat campaign interference.