BEIJING (AP) — Lawyers and Christian churchgoers said they were blocked from meeting in a central Chinese county Monday to commemorate Christmas and draw attention to the detention of a pastor and his aides.
The canceled meeting at the church in Henan province's Nanle county came during a monthlong crackdown on the church over a land dispute that pits its popular preacher against the county government.
Nanle's congregation had wanted to hold a prayer meeting on Monday morning to mark Christmas. But they also sought to use the gathering to rally support for their pastor, Zhang Shaojie, and more than a dozen of his aides who have been detained by police for more than a month and denied access to their lawyers.
Rights attorney Xia Jun said he and several other lawyers who had traveled to Nanle were on their way to the prayer meeting when they were blocked by about two dozen middle-aged women and some men.
The crowd blocked the road with a ladder and harassed the lawyers, preventing them from either going to the church or heading in the direction from which they came. Xia said he believed local authorities hired the group to chase the visitors out of the county.
"The most serious problem in Nanle right now is that it is practically lawless," Xia said by phone. "The atmosphere is dark and there are no human rights."
A Christian woman named Shi Ping said she and several others from Shanghai who had traveled to Nanle were escorted to a police station by plainclothes officers who guarded the church entrance. Nearly 100 people blocked the church's entrance, Shi and another churchgoer said by phone.
The case has drawn the scrutiny of rights lawyers and activists who say it exposes a county government's ability to act with impunity against a local Christian church even if it is state-sanctioned. Supporters of the church say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate it a piece of land for the construction of a new building, leaving them without a place of worship.
Reached by phone, a man from the Nanle county government said he had not heard about the case, while calls to local police and the Communist Party's offices rang unanswered.
The dispute highlights the vulnerable position that religious groups hold in the Chinese political system under the communist government, an expert said.
"A religious group in China, no matter what group, is a weak, marginalized social organization," said Prof. Fenggang Yang, a sociologist and expert on religion in China at Purdue University. "They don't have the power, they don't have the social status. Perhaps local officials feel that to take them on is not a big deal."