BEIJING (AP) — A group of rights lawyers and churchgoers supporting a jailed Chinese Christian pastor were attacked by hired thugs on Christmas Eve at his house in central China, his wife and a lawyer said.
Wang Fengrui, his wife, said dozens of thugs kicked and punched members of the group on Tuesday when they attempted to leave the house in Henan province.
Three lawyers and an assistant had traveled to Nanle County to seek meetings with Pastor Zhang Shaojie and his aides, who were arrested more than a month ago over a land dispute and have been denied access to lawyers.
Five churchgoers who were at Zhang's house along with the lawyers had hoped to hold a prayer meeting on Monday to rally support for him, but were prevented by authorities.
Supporters say the county government reneged on an agreement to provide Zhang's congregation with land for a building, leaving them without a place of worship.
The conflict became violent when the thugs forcibly prevented the lawyers and churchgoers from leaving the house on Tuesday, according to Wang and Zhang's lawyer, Xia Jun, who was among the group at the house.
"About 20 or so people had staked out the house overnight with lights and bonfires, and they used violence to prevent some of us from leaving, grabbing their clothes, taking their possessions such as bank cards and beating them," Xia said. "One lawyer, who is 64 years old, left with only the two handles of his briefcase."
The crowd of thugs grew to about 40, and Xia said the group at the house called police for help but to no avail. A man who answered the phone at the local police station said he had no knowledge of the incident, and calls to the county government office rang unanswered.
Both Xia and Wang said Cao Nan, a preacher who came from Shenzhen to Nanle for the prayer meeting, told them he was placed inside a cage at the local police station and beaten and sprayed with pepper water on Monday before being allowed to go to Zhang's house.
"I saw his shredded clothes and bruises on his body, his legs and his face," Wang said. "He could not sleep at all last night."
Wang said Cao was determined to leave the house on Tuesday and — after another round of beatings — took a knife with him for self-defense. Wang said she believes Cao was taken away again by police.
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.