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 prioritise 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. Muslims pray outside a mosque during Eid al-Adha celebrations in Wuzhong Credit: Corbis News/ Jie Zhao 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.