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Lawyers of detained pastor in China go on hunger strike

The lawyers of a Chinese pastor who was arrested with 24 members of his Nanle County Christian Church congregation in November have gone on hunger strike, in an act of solidarity with their clients.

Pastor Zhang Shaojie and his followers are reportedly being held at an unknown location, illegally and without access to their defence attorneys since the 16th November.

It's unclear why the church leader and his members were taken, but friends and family say it may have been to do with the charity work he was doing. The series of detainments began on the 16th November, when it's believed Pastor Zhang met with the Nanle County Public Security Bureau Chief and a deputy at the church in what some reports are suggesting was a trap.

The church said that during the meeting a dozen police officers entered and 'tied up' Pastor Zhang without showing any formal documents. Church members and Pastor Zhang's family members gathered in front of the police station to protest at the church leader's detainment. 

The group was denied entry to the building and some where reportedly beaten. Church members also claim the stress put Pastor Zhang's old age parents in hospital to be treated for high blood pressure. It's also claimed Pastor Zhang's two sisters were also detained during the protest and church funds have been frozen.

In another development on Friday, lawyers for the detained state-sanctioned Nanle County Christian Church members were surrounded and beaten by an unidentified mob, who church officials claim are paid and backed by the local government.

Anti-persecution charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide's East Asia Advocacy Officer, who can't be named for security reasons, told Premier's Marcus Jones during the News Hour why the lawyers have now deciced to go on hunger strike.

Speaking to Sky News from an unspecified location on the border of Hebei and Henan Provinces, Pastor Zhang's daughter Zhang Yunyun, who has gone on the run with her small baby, said she feared the arrest of her father could lead to her own detention. She said she had also received repeated threats on the phone from officials, with one caller threatening to "wipe out her family" if she talks to reporters.

Observers claim the case puts a Christian community, which had been growing in numbers and influence, against a local government that has seized the land bought for a new church. China's poor record on religious tolerance has been showing signs of improvement in recent years, but Pastor Zhang's case is being seen as evidence that in parts of China the violent suppression and unlawful arrests of the faithful by local government officials continues. Officially, the People's Republic of China is an atheist country but only because the Chinese Communist Government is an atheist institution.

Chairman Mao, whose revolution brought the Communists to power in 1949, described religion as "poison". Attempts were made through his Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s to eradicate all religions. China as a country, though, has an ancient tradition of religion of all types: Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, Muslims and more. 

At this year's Government-run National Chinese Christian Congress, figures were published showing the growing popularity of Christianity in China. It said that 2.4 million Protestant Christian followers were baptised during the five years to the end of 2012. In that time, 5,195 churches had been newly built or renovated and 1,057 pastors, 482 curates and 1,443 elders ordained.

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