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Islam Flourishes in China's Ningxia Region

YINCHAUN, Ningxia - Islam in China is flourishing, with official statistics counting more than 20 million Chinese Muslims. But, as with all religions in China, the state continues to maintain close watch over Islamic activities.

Northwest China's Ningxia is the country's only provincial-level autonomous region for the country's most numerous Muslims, the Hui.

Ningxia's Na Jia Hu is more than 500 years old and one of China's oldest surviving mosques. Villager Na, who is 74 years old, says he remembers when Red Guards tried to tear it down during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's and 1970's, when Muslims were persecuted, not allowed to worship and some even driven to suicide.

"Old people resisted, and this mosque also had been turned into a copper factory, so they [the Red Guards] could not destroy it," said one worshipper.

Na is one of China's 10-million Huis, descendants of Arab and Persian Silk Road traders who stayed and intermarried. He says life for Chinese Muslims has improved tremendously in recent decades.

"Ever since reform and opening, things have been very good -- so good I cannot even say it in words," said Na.

Huis make up China's largest Muslim population. They are seen as better integrated into Chinese society than the Uighurs in Xinjiang, who speak a different language. But Lu Zhiming, who heads the mosque's management committee, says he thinks it is essential for the Chinese government to manage all of the country's Muslims.

"These past few years, after the huge changes that happened in the Muslim world, our country has enforced a 'management according to law' system, so that we do not have problems in our areas such as not being united or harmonious," said Lu.

The government maintains 10 state-run Muslim colleges throughout China and has allowed the emergence of non-governmental Islamic institutes too. Chinese Muslim scholar Ma Ping, director of Ningxia's Hui and Islam Institute, says the government has a standard criterion to manage imams and Islamic students.

"If you want to get a permit to become an imam, you need certification from the government. After you have that, you can go to a mosque and be an imam," said Ma.

Ma stresses that Huis are largely peaceable, despite a recent incident in which Hui villagers clashed with Ningxia authorities who tore down their newly-built mosque. He says the reason in that case was straightforward - the villagers did not have a government permit, and so their mosque was deemed illegal.