Authorities in Beijing have shut down a well-known Islamic bookstore and publishing house and detained its founder on "terrorism" charges amid a nationwide security operation ahead of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly congress this month.
An employee who answered the phone at the Qingzhen Bookstore in Beijing's Haidian district on Tuesday confirmed the move.
"We, the bookstore, have closed," the former employee said. "We are no longer in operation and I am no longer an employee here."
"I don't know the details of the situation, though."
Store owner Ma Yinglong, a member of the Dongxiang ethnic group from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, is currently being detained on suspicion of "terrorist activities," U.S.-based rights activist Suleiman Gu told RFA.
And a Hui Muslim who asked to remain anonymous said Ma had already been detained for more than a year, before being released under a suspended sentence handed down by the Haidian District People's Court for "illegal business activities."
The owner was already under house arrest when he was taken away on Oct. 6, Gu said.
The Qingzhen Bookstore publishes books about Islam and related topics, which it sells on its IslamBook.net website.
IslamBook.net, which offers texts in Chinese on topics ranging from Islamic philosophy to the sporting life of ethnic Chinese Hui Muslims, was accessible from outside China on Tuesday.
The online store also offers a number of Islamic religious items including Malaysian-made hijabs and other clothing, Islamic arts and crafts and halal food items.
"I'm not sure what [Ma's] status was before he was detained again on Oct. 6," Gu told RFA. "It could be that he had a suspended sentence."
"His friends said that he was under residential surveillance at the time [of his detention] and that the police detaining him were from Xinjiang," he said.
"His hometown is in Xinjiang, and he was taken away on charges relating to 'terrorism'," Gu said.
He said an employee of the bookstore had told him that they were waiting "for the case to be processed according to the law."
"We are worried too," they said in a recording of the phone conversation with Gu. "It's hard to say what the final outcome will be, but ... don't be too worried. We have faith in the government and in the party."
Religion and 'terrorism'
Rights activist Liu Xinglian, a former head of the Islamic Association in the southern island province of Hainan, said the authorities are now explicitly linking religion and "terrorism," in the hope of preventing more peaceful dissidents like jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti from speaking out against government policy in Xinjiang.
"They will use trumped-up charges to frame people and suppress them, so [Ma's detention] isn't surprising," Liu said.
An outspoken economics professor who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, Tohti was handed a life sentence on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day show trial.
The complete version of the ruling has never been made public, but the court decision cited Tohti’s interviews with overseas Uyghur, Chinese, and English-language media outlets, his commentaries on events concerning Uyghurs in Xinjiang, his criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies, and his work founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which was shut down by authorities in 2014.
"This case is similar to that of Ilham Tohti," Liu said. "There are certain issues that they don't want to put out there, so they find an excuse to suppress the person instead."
The closure of the bookstore comes amid a huge nationwide "stability maintenance" operation that has seen the mass confiscation of Qurans and other religious items from ethnic minority Muslims in Xinjiang, and a ban on ethnic minority Uyghurs from hotels nationwide ahead of the 19th Party Congress in Beijing on Oct. 18.
The government has also stepped up control over religious activities, meting out harsher punishments for unsanctioned religious activities and stepping up supervision of religious groups in a bid to "block extremism" and tackle "terrorism."
New rules ban the use of religion as "a tool to sabotage national security, social order or China’s education system, or to damage ethnic unity or carry out terrorist activities."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.