CAIRO - Growing from a handful of Muslim residents a decade ago, the Muslim community in the south-west of Shanghai Yiwu city has remarkably grown to be the fastest growing Muslim community in China.
"It is really spectacular," the mosque's imam, Aisin-Gioro Baoquan, said of the increase in the number of Yiwu's Muslims, The National newspaper reported on Sunday, August 12.
He said the city "undoubtedly" has the fastest-growing Muslim community in China.
Hosting the largest markets in the world for selling goods made in China's factories, Yiwu city has attracted growing numbers of Arab and South Asian traders who buy items to ship abroad.
This, in turn, has drawn in Chinese Muslims, mostly Hui people and members of the Turkic Uighur minority, to work in restaurants and as store assistants or interpreters, turning this city south-west of Shanghai into a key centre for Islam in eastern China.
The city now hosts an estimated 35,000 Muslims, about half the city's Muslims are thought to be from overseas, with many from Arab countries.
"It's an organic blend between commerce and religious life," said Aisin-Gioro, a member of China's Manchu minority.
It's quite unique.
Coming to the city in the early 2000s, a number of about 100 Muslims occupied a rented hotel room for prayers.
By 2004, and several moves later, the Muslim population had grown to the extent that the local authorities gave the community a former silk factory to worship in.
Five years later, work began to rebuild the factory-turned-place of worship into a new 25 million yuan mosque, funded by donations from Muslims from overseas and within the city.
While Guangzhou in southern China has more Muslims, Yiwu's smaller size means there is "a stronger sense of a Muslim community", according to Li Zihong, 41, a Hui Muslim restaurant owner and vice chairman of Yiwu Islamic Committee.
"Now we have such a magnificent mosque, the community is anchored. It gives us a sense of belonging," Zihong said.
Coming from more than 20 countries around the world, the Muslim influx to Yiwu city was welcomed as spurring economic growth.
"It's definitely a good thing," Wu Donglian, 49, a supermarket owner born in the city.
"They have improved the city's economy a lot. Today Yiwu is several times the size it used to be. It's expanded very quickly."
Located in open Zhejiang province, the city has long welcomed a diverse group of people thanks to its role as a trading hub.
"I have met people of all races, of all nationalities. I think most people share my view. They are quite tolerant," Wu Dengqui, a salesperson for a packaging company in the city, said.
Following the Arab Spring, trade was notably affected in the city.
By establishing new democracies in the Middle East, the situation was getting better now, promising a further expansion of the Muslim community as new democracies were established.
"I am pretty sure this Muslim community will grow further, because every year you see new faces," said Aisin-Gioro.
It changes every year and it gets bigger.
Atheist China recognizes five religions Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Taoism and Buddhism and tightly regulates their administration and practice.
According to official data, China has 22 million Muslims, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai regions and provinces.
Smaller Muslim communities can also be found throughout interior China.
Unofficially, Muslim groups say the number is even higher, stating that there are from 65-100 million Muslims in China up to 7.5 percent of the population.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net