BEIJING    -  President Xi Jinping-led Chinese government has given significant religious freedom to the Muslims in the country and 1000-year-old Niujie Mosque in the heart of this capital city is an undeniable example.

Hundreds of Muslims gather in the mosque every day for mandatory prayers. The mosque is also visited frequently by the Muslim tourists.

Niujie is the oldest and largest of the 40-odd mosques in Beijing. It is also a central religious and social gathering place for Beijing’s 250,000 Muslims.

The mosque was built in 996 AD, during the Liao dynasty, and was originally designed by the son of an imam, Nazruddin.

After Genghis Khan’s armies destroyed it in 1215, the mosque was rebuilt and later significantly expanded in 1442.

By the Qing dynasty, the neighbouring markets were well known for halal beef and mutton, and today the Muslim presence is still quite strong, with Muslim grocery stores lining the road and Arabic script on most of the signs.

Of the 42 rooms in the complex, the most important is the 600 square-meter prayer hall, which can hold more than 1,000 worshippers and is a striking blend of Islamic and Chinese design.

Imams used the Tower for observing the Moon to determine the start of Ramzan each year.

Both the tower and the interior of the main prayer hall are off-limits to non-believers, and women are restricted to certain areas.

The front gate of the mosque is only open during two important Muslim festivals: Ramadan and Eidul Azha - known in China as Corban.

The son of the founding Arab imam is buried in the courtyard garden, along with two sheikhs from Central Asia who came to China along the Silk Road.

The mosque complex also contains several stone tablets, including epitaphs for the two sheikhs and a stele by Emperor Kangxi - 1654-1722 - absolving the Hui Muslim minority of a conspiracy to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Other artefacts housed in the mosque include ancient porcelain and classical Islamic texts.

Recently, the mosque was being given a RMB 20 million facelift, which has greatly enlarged the complex and allowed the mosque to reclaim two nearby buildings, one of which serves as a separate place of worship for women. Around 1 pm on Fridays, prayers have been known to draw upwards of 700 worshippers. Visitors must dress conservatively - long trousers or skirts and shirts with sleeves.

Mohammed Irfan, a visitor from Pakistan, said he had prayed in the mosque and was impressed with the facilities.

“It’s a good gathering place for the Muslims. It is also a great attraction for all the tourists who come from different parts of the world,” he said.

Chinese officials said Muslims were free to worship in the mosque. “The government treats all the citizens equally. We respect all beliefs. President Xi Jinping acknowledges the contributions of Muslim citizens towards the country’s progress,” said one official.