By Nicole Mordant and Cameron French
VANCOUVER/TORONTO (Reuters) - A Canadian couple detained in China amid spying allegations made regular trips to deliver goods to North Korea, their close friend and pastor said on Wednesday, and set up a British Columbia-based organization to collect funds for their work.
Rich Kao, head minister at a small church just outside Vancouver that backs the Garratt's North Korea-focused charity, North Star Aid, said the trips were humanitarian ventures.
Kao said the Garratts, who moved to China in 1984, had been doing missionary work in the country but came back to Canada about seven years ago. Soon after, they joined his church and then launched North Star Aid, the North Korea-focused aid group that has come under the spotlight since news of the Garratts' detention emerged.
Kevin and Julia Garratt, who returned to China in 2008 and settled in Dandong on the North Korean border, were detained Monday. The investigation comes a week after Canada took the unusual step of singling out Chinese hackers for attacking a key computer network.
It is unusual for foreigners to be charged with violating China's state secrets law - a serious crime that is punishable by life in prison or death in the most severe cases.
Kao, 53, said he met the Garratts when they attended a service at the Five Stones Church in New Westminster, British Columbia, where Kao is senior pastor.
"They were in between home churches, so they happened to come to one of our services, and in the course of getting to know them and building the friendship, it seemed like a fit for them to join our fellowship," he told Reuters.
He said the Garratts were moved to focus on North Korea after seeing the poverty in the country and the contrast with improving conditions in China.
North Star operates as a subsidiary of Five Stones, Kao said, but is run by the Garratts from Dandong and largely staffed by church volunteers. North Star's funding largely comes from outside the church, he said, and the group relies heavily on word-of-mouth for support.
Simeon Garratt, 27, the couple's eldest son, said North Star was run "mainly by local business people."
"It's a fully functioning charity," he said in Vancouver. "They set it up so people could get ... a tax write-off."
The charity's website says it serves North Korea "with love and practical assistance" and features a photo gallery of workers delivering aid from trucks.
Garratt said his parents had done some North Korea-related aid work prior to living in Dandong but wanted to do it "on a larger scale," prompting their move to the city, an important gateway to the reclusive state.
(Writing by Cameron French; Editing by Amran Abocar and Ken Wills)