Closed Kashmir main mosque belies India’s religious freedom claim

The central mosque in Indian-administered Kashmir’s largest city has largely remained closed for the past two years amid a bitter dispute between Indian authorities and Kashmiri Muslims.

The centuries-old Jamia Masjid dominates its neighbourhood in Srinagar with an imposing main gate and enormous turrets.

The building, made of brick and wood, is one of the oldest mosques in the city of 1.2 million, 96 percent of whom are Muslim, and often draws thousands to prayer.

With 378 wooden pillars, it can hold 33,000 worshippers.

On special occasions over the years, hundreds of thousands of Muslims fill nearby lanes and roads to offer prayers led from the mosque.

However, Indian authorities see the mosque as a trouble spot – a nerve centre for protests and clashes that challenge New Delhi’s sovereignty over the disputed Kashmir region, claimed in its entirety by India and Pakistan who rule over parts of it.

For Kashmiri Muslims, the mosque is a sacred place where they offer mandatory prayers on Fridays and also raise their voices for political rights.

Amid these tensions, the mosque has mostly been shuttered for the past two years.

The grand mosque is seen through its gate that remains locked on Fridays [Mukhtar Khan/AP]

The mosque’s chief priest has been detained inside his home almost non-stop throughout that time, and the mosque’s main gate is padlocked and blocked with corrugated tin sheets on Fridays.