Lawyers yesterday expressed concern over the fate of 13 "house church" Christians who have been detained for more than two weeks after they tried to hold a bible study meeting on the outskirts of Beijing.
The two lawyers, who on Tuesday were allowed for the first time to visit Xu Yonghai - the leader of Shengai, or Holy Love, Christian Fellowship - and petitioner Xu Caihong, said the Christians had been accused of taking part in "illegal assemblies and demonstrations" and put in criminal detention at the Beijing No1 Detention Centre.
Their families have not been formally notified, they said. According to an account Xu Yonghai posted online, he and more than a dozen Christians travelled to the Tongzhou district of the capital on January 24 for bible study at the home of former dissident Zhang Wenhe .
Zhang was temporarily detained by police at the time so they could not meet, but later in the day they returned to Zhang's home to bring him medicine for his heart conditions.
When they were there, police burst in and took them away to be held at a police station. Xu was released early the next day, but was detained again on January 26.
Lawyer Liang Xiaojun said Xu Yonghai, a former doctor once jailed for sending an essay on church persecution to a US magazine, had been fasting since he was detained. "He was in good spirits, but said he would continue fasting and praying," Liang said. He said Xu was puzzled as to why the authorities took action against his fellowship, which is in its 25th year.
"He said he was embarrassed that these people only wanted to hear him preach and they got arrested," Liang said.
Xu wrote in his account that while in custody the Christians were repeatedly asked whether they were in the Shijingshan district of the capital on January 22, the day when rights advocate Xu Zhiyong was put on trial in the area. Several petitioners in the church group had demonstrated outside the court.
Beijing Public Security Bureau did not respond to a faxed request for comment yesterday.
Hu Shigen , another fellowship leader and a former dissident who spent 16 years in jail, said exactly a week before the Christians were detained an official from the Tongzhou district ethnic affairs committee interrupted a bible study meeting at Zhang's home and accused believers of attending an illegal assembly.
Hu believed the authorities wanted to suppress the fellowship because it was attended by mostly petitioners to the government and former dissidents.
Although fewer than 20 people turn up usually, "they do not like the 'hostile elements' getting together", Hu said.
The Tongzhou district ethnic affairs committee did not respond to inquiries yesterday.
Both lawyers said they were concerned about the police's use of arbitrary detention. "This is an abuse of the detention system for the sake of stability maintenance," said Liang.
Lawyer Yu Wensheng said the Christians' detention would end on February 25, but it was unclear whether they would be immediately released.
Under mainland law, people can be held for up to 37 days in criminal detention after which police can pass the case to prosecutors or release them on bail.