WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States demanded Tuesday that China release a well-known Christian lawyer and religious figures who were detained last month ahead of a meeting with a visiting senior U.S. diplomat. In addition, the U.S. urged China, and other nations, to release female political prisoners.
The calls come ahead of a state visit this month to the U.S. by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the upcoming United Nations General Assembly and the 20th anniversary of a 1995 global conference on women that was hosted by Beijing.
David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at-large for religious freedom, said the Aug. 25 detentions of attorney Zhang Kai and the others were a "particularly alarming development" as it came while he was in China preparing to meet the group the next day. He said other religious figures whom he met with had also been detained or harassed. Saperstein called the actions "outrageous," particularly as Chinese authorities had encouraged his Aug. 20-28 visit to take stock of religious freedom in the country.
"In that context, there can be no excuse for the detention of these religious figures who either met with me or tried to meet with me," Saperstein told reporters in a conference call. He called on authorities to release the roughly 10 detainees, including Zhang, his assistant and several pastors who he said had been accused of threatening public order and national security.
Shortly before Saperstein spoke, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, kicked off a month-long campaign for the release of 20 women prisoners of conscience. Three of those women are imprisoned in China, including the first to be featured: prominent lawyer Wang Yu, who was detained in July along with her husband and has not yet been charged with a crime.
Power said human rights would be "a key core issue when President Xi visits Washington" ahead of the U.N. meeting.
Zhang has been advising churches in China's Zhejiang province that are resisting orders to remove crosses from church roofs, which has been criticized as unconstitutional and infringing upon the right of religious freedom. Zhang and his assistant were in a church in the city of Wenzhou last Tuesday night when they were taken away by government workers, associates said.
Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang, is known for its entrepreneurship as well as its many Protestant and Catholic churches.
Local Christians said at least 11 pastors and church members had been taken away by police last week, most likely to deter resistance by churches against the cross removal.
Zhejiang authorities began to remove crosses last year, citing violation of building codes. A rule set earlier this year mandates that all crosses be wholly affixed to building facades, which state media say is for safety concerns.
Critics say the government is trying to reduce the visibility of Christianity, which has been growing rapidly in China and may even rival the ruling Communist Party in size.