A hugely popular online portal serving China's 23-million-strong Muslim population has been shuttered after it was denounced for "religious extremism" by a leading pro-government figure on social media.
The "Zhongmu Wang" website at 2muslim.com was unavailable on Wednesday, displaying the message: "We are currently securing the system. Please check back later to see if the website is functional."
An employee who answered the phone at the website's parent company, the Muslim Culture Communication in the western city of Lanzhou, declined to comment.
But webmaster Xiaoma Age was reluctant to discuss political factors in the shutdown.
"That's right, the website ... we have run into some problems," he said. "We are in the process of dealing with them."
"It's a server error, but I can't really talk about it on the phone," he said.
He denied that the shutdown was a form of censorship linked to a petition posted on one of the website's forums that called on President Xi Jinping to put an end to a government crackdown on rights activists.
"I don't think it has much to do with that," he said.
The closure came after the posting of an open letter to Xi calling for a halt to the "brutal suppression" of activists and the immediate release of those still detained by the state, according to U.S.-based Yi Sulaiman Gu, a Chinese Muslim studying at the University of Georgia, who posted it.
Celebrity tweeter reports post
According to Gu, he posted the letter on Dec. 10 on the Zhongmu Wang current affairs discussion board.
It was reported as problematic soon after by celebrity tweeter Xi Wuyi, a professor of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"It is the duty of all patriotic citizens to protect national unity and to oppose any forces seeking to create ethnic divisions," Xi Wuyi tweeted, including a screenshot of Gu's letter.
Pro-government tweeter Mei Xinyu soon joined in the denuncation, Gu said.
The open letter had hit out at President Xi for the jailing of hundreds of lawyers, activists and academics since he came to power in 2012.
"You are not responsible for all of the crimes of the totalitarian system, but as the totalitarian system's head and its commander-in-chief of repression, you must take responsibility for the blood and tears which now flow," Agence France-Presse quoted the letter as saying.
"In the next spring of China's new Jasmine Revolution, who will drive your tanks to crush us, the new generation of students after 1989?"
Gu Yi said both Xi Wuyi and Mei Xinyu have "official" status and huge followings on social media, and habitually weigh in to support the ruling Chinese Communist Party in online debate.
"They have always had Chinese Muslims in their sights," Gu said. "And in the background of this is the fact that the Chinese government has been looking for an excuse to shut down Zhongmu Wang for years."
Mei Xinyu admitted when contacted by RFA on Wednesday that he had intended to target the website.
"Recently, I have noticed a lot of religious extremist material posted on Zhongmu Wang," Mei said. "There's too much nonsense on there."
But he said it wasn't his job to police the site.
"This is not my line of work -- where would I get the time to pay attention these things?" he said. "But I do know that it was this website that posted that ... subversive article."
Meanwhile, Chinese rights activist Hu Jun said there is an increasing sense of paranoia exhibited by Xi Jinping's administration regarding any form of dissent.
"This situation has come about because the authorities don't trust anyone now," Hu said. "This is abnormal psychology."
"The amount they are spending on stability maintenance now, on installing surveillance cameras, is frightening."
He said security measures are particularly intense in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group.
"Xinjiang people are frisked when they leave their homes, when they go into the toilet, and again when they come out," Hu said. "They are frisked if they go to the shops, or to a residential area."
"They are searched when they leave work for the day, and when they get on the bus; they are searched everywhere," he said.
China is home to more than 23 million Muslims, though some independent estimates say there may be as many as 50 million.
While Beijing blames Uyghur extremists for a string of violent attacks and clashes in recent years, critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts "strike hard” campaigns including random, nighttime police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including clothing and personal appearance.
The atheist ruling party has an army of religious affairs officials whose job it is to impose strict limits on all forms of religious worship, and to crack down on faith-based activities that haven't submitted to government regulation.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lee Lai for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.