A Christian pastor, lawyers, and churchgoers were beaten and prevented from meeting Monday in a central Chinese county to commemorate Christmas and highlight the detention of another pastor and his aides, according to sources.
They said government-hired thugs blocked those coming into Henan province's Nanle county to rally support for pastor Zhang Shaojie and more than a dozen of his aides detained by police about a month ago and denied access to their lawyers.
Some of the churchgoers came as far as Shanghai for Christmas prayers at the Nanle Christian Church.
One pastor from Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province was among those assaulted and detained.
“Nanle’s case is becoming quite tense as even lawyers were contained and beaten up," Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"Many supporters from Shanghai were also detained. Pastor Cao Nan from Shenzhen was assaulted, then detained. Some brothers and sisters from Henan were also under police custody,” he said.
The Chinese authorities had been cracking down on the Nanle church for about a month following a land dispute that pitted its popular preacher Zhang against the county government. Church supporters say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate it a piece of land for the construction of a new building.
"The most serious problem in Nanle right now is that it is practically lawless," rights attorney Xia Jun said by phone to the Associated Press. "The atmosphere is dark and there are no human rights."
Xia 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.
“We see a horrific situation here," a family church member of Nanle, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA.
"They [government hired thugs] drove vehicles without license plates and they stay on guard outside our town and stop outsiders from coming into our town. They block our brothers and sisters who came from other locations from visiting us.”
A Christian woman named Shi Ping told AP that 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, according to Shi and another churchgoer.
The Nanle case exposes a county government's ability to act with impunity against a local Christian church even if it is state-sanctioned, rights lawyers and activists say.
Pastor Zhang and more than 20 members of the officially sanctioned "Three-Self" church had been detained for about a month on charges of "obstructing official duty" and "gathering a crowd to disturb public order."
The crackdown is rare for a state-sanctioned church. Chinese authorities officially allows Christians to only worship in such churches, while unregistered congregations tend to be harassed.
Lawyer Guo Lianhui from Jiangxi province told RFA he and several others had been "trapped" inside pastor Zhang's home on Monday.
He said about 40 to 50 people outside the house prevented him from leaving.
"The situation is quite tense and we are contained and won’t be able to leave the house,” he said.
Song Ninsheng, also from Jiangxi, said he was among those "stopped by a group of people as we were about to leave Pastor Zhang’s house this morning to attend a prayers gathering."
"They wouldn’t allow us to leave. They used force to contain us. They beat up church members and lawyers."
"A religious group in China, no matter what group, is a weak, marginalized social organization," Fenggang Yang, a sociologist and expert on religion in China at U.S.-based Purdue University, told AP.
"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."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Feng Xiaoming. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.