BEIJING (AP) — Fifteen Chinese lawyers began a hunger strike on Thursday to protest being blocked from meeting a Christian pastor and several of his aides who were detained in a crackdown highlighting the ruling Communist Party's often prickly attitude toward religious groups.
Lawyers Xia Jun and Liu Weiguo said they and the other attorneys who traveled to Nanle county in Henan to help the leaders of a state-approved church were repeatedly prevented from seeing them at a detention center.
"We strongly believe that this is a clear case of persecution of a religious group," Liu said in a phone interview. He said police were violating Chinese law by preventing the detainees from having access to lawyers.
The lawyers were staging a hunger strike at least until they were allowed to see their clients, Liu and Xia said.
The crackdown is unusual for a state-approved church. China's Communist government officially allows Christians to only worship in such churches, while unregistered congregations tend to be harassed.
The lawyers say the detained pastor, Zhang Shaojie, and other church leaders are being punished for resisting local authorities' attempts to seize the church's land. Officials in Nanle either could not be reached or said they were unaware of the case.
Liu said around 100 thugs surrounded the lawyers Thursday outside the detention center after their fifth and latest attempt to meet Zhang. He said the thugs harassed the attorneys and took many of their cellphones.
Activists say local Chinese authorities often hire men from the area to intimidate and harass people or groups that police and other officials want to drive away.
The lawyers said Zhang and the other church leaders were arrested for "obstructing official business" and gathering a crowd to disrupt public order, a vaguely worded charge that has recently been used in politically motivated cases. Around two dozen other churchgoers have also been rounded up, but have not been officially arrested, Liu said.