Updated at 12:50 p.m. ET on 2013-12-13
Lawyers for a group of Protestant church members detained on public order offenses in China's northern province of Henan were beaten by government-hired thugs on Thursday after they protested being denied the right to visit their clients.
The attack took place outside the Nanle County Detention Center, where the group of more than a dozen lawyers had called on authorities to allow them to meet with Pastor Zhang Shaojie of the officially sanctioned "Three-Self" church and 20 members of his congregation held since last month.
"Some of the lawyers were beaten," rights lawyer Liu Weiguo said on Thursday. "Fortunately, they weren't seriously injured."
"They kept trying to snatch away the lawyers' cell phones," he said.
But he said the lawyers wouldn't give up on trying to meet the detainees.
Fellow defense attorney Chen Jiangang said authorities had bolted the gates of the detention center against them.
"All in all, about 100 people got out of buses," Chen said. "They kept getting off buses and surrounding us."
"They locked the gate and wouldn't let us go in. I think there were some plainclothes police among them," he added.
The church members were detained by Nanle authorities last month after they protested outside the county police department for the release of Zhang, who was detained by police in a Nov. 16 raid on the church, according to the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid.
Zhang and 23 of his congregation have been detained for more than three weeks on charges of "obstructing official duty" and "gathering a crowd to disturb public order," ChinaAid said in a statement on its website.
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.
Lawyers said the Nanle county police refused to confirm exactly where the pastor and his congregation members were being held.
"We managed to discover that they're being held somewhere else," Liu said.
The lawyers said that after they left the detention center, they were followed by unidentified men in vehicles with no license plate.
"Those in charge in this county have clearly not carried out their legal responsibilities," rights lawyer Yang Xingquan, who traveled from Beijing to defend his client, told RFA's Mandarin Service.
Yang added: "There were two people in the car with no license plates covertly taking photos or video of us."
Pastor Zhang was detained by police who raided the church and tied him up, without showing any legal documents, ChinaAid said last month.
The group said it had no knowledge of the church detainees' whereabouts, but said other church members had claimed they were being tortured in custody.
No formal arrest notices have been issued and the church's bank account has been frozen, it said.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party wields tight control over religious activities and has launched a nationwide campaign in recent months to force unofficial "house churches" to join the officially sanctioned "Three-Self Patriotic Association" for Protestant churches.
Protestants and Catholics practicing outside of state-controlled churches are typically targeted for harassment and detention by local police and religious affairs officials.
Churches that attract a wide following and set up in their own premises are often forced to leave or give up their buildings, but are forbidden from organizing open-air gatherings in public either, Chinese Christians report.
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades amid sweeping economic and social change.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in nonrecognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.