Chinese authorities have dismissed reports of deaths in clashes last week between Hui Muslims and police over the demolition of a mosque in northwestern Ningxia region as Beijing came under rare criticism from a key global Islamic group over the violence.
According to a Hong Kong-based rights group, hundreds of Muslims in Ningxia's Taoshan village clashed with police in a bid to prevent the demolition work, and the ensuing violence caused several deaths.
Hundreds of residents in Taoshan village confronted police armed with tear gas, truncheons and knives, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported.
An official who answered the phone at the Tongxin county government, which oversees Taoshan village, denied that any deaths had occurred.
"No, nobody died," the official said in an interview on Tuesday.
But he didn't deny that the incident had occurred, nor that people were injured.
"They were all taken to the hospital," he said. "I'm not sure of the exact number. I don't have the figures."
Repeated calls to the Tongxin county police department were answered and immediately cut off on Tuesday.
And repeated calls to the Hexi police station, near where the clashes are reported to have taken place, went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
The initial report from the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said two people were killed and more than 50 injured in the disturbances.
The group said the violence between local Muslims and roughly 1,000 armed officers began after police declared a newly built mosque to be illegal, and moved in to demolish it.
One Taoshan resident told Reuters he was away at the time of the clash, but that his relatives in the town believed five people had been killed.
The resident, Jin Haitao, said villagers believed the dead included two elderly women, a young man, and two people from nearby areas.
Residents of nearby areas complained that telephone links with Taoshan had been cut, making it impossible to verify what had happened.
Jin told Hong Kong's Cable Television that local Hui Muslims had spent more than 8 million yuan (U.S. $1.27 million) on the mosque, only to have it torn down by the authorities.
"They told us that the mosque was illegal, and they said our gathering was an illegal activity," Jin said.
"They beat us with police batons and bayonets, and the villagers gave no resistance."
"My grandmother, an old lady of 80, had already stopped breathing when they were done beating her."
The violence drew rare criticism on Wednesday from the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
"The [OIC] spokesman expresses his deep concern over reports of a clash between local villagers and police resulting in numerous casualties and the destruction of a Mosque in Taoshan village ... in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China," the Saudi Arabia-based group said in a statement on its website.
It said the clashes took place following a police raid on a re-inauguration of the 1987-built mosque, following recent renovations.
"The apparent heavy-handed response of local authorities appears to have resulted in several deaths, as well as approximately 50 injured and 100 arrested," the group said.
"The OIC expresses its concern at the destruction of a place of worship and the loss of life, which is deeply regrettable," it said.
The group called on China to respect the rights of Muslims to construct and maintain their places of worship, and to attend religious services freely.
Professor Xia Ming, a political science teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York, said the Chinese government is tightening control over ethnic minority regions, including the troubled region of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur Muslim minority.
"The Chinese Communist Party is trying to eradicate the influence of religion and its power structures in ethnic minority regions, because it is pursuing a policy of atheism," Xia said.
"This is doing great harm to ethnic minorities," he said. "Clashes are inevitable."
He said if Beijing refuses to recognize religious diversity among China's ethnic groups, and denies them freedom of religious belief, such clashes will only intensify in the future.
China's Hui ethnic minority numbers around 10 million people, making it the country's biggest Muslim group.
The Hui are culturally more similar to mainstream Han Chinese than Xinjiang's Turkic-speaking Uyghur people, but retain some Islamic customs like avoiding pork and circumcising male children.
Ethnic tensions have nonetheless flared in recent years, notably in riots following a 2004 car accident involving a Han Chinese and a Hui Muslim in the central province of Henan.
And in 1993, a cartoon ridiculing Muslims led to police storming a mosque taken over by Hui in northwestern China.
China's atheist ruling Party maintains a tight grip on religious activities, in spite of promising freedom of religion via the Constitution, allowing only officially recognized religious institutions to operate.
In Xinjiang, Uyghur children are banned from attending mosques until they reach 18, and are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, Uyghurs say.
Xinjiang Party religious affairs officials involve themselves in every aspect of religious life, including approving sermons in mosques and dictating which interpretations of the Quran will be used.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Tang Qiwei for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.