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China pastor's supporters beaten on Christmas Eve

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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 two lawyers 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 Nanle county in Henan province.

Pastor Zhang Shaojie and his aides were arrested more than a month ago over a land dispute and have been denied access to lawyers. His 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 church even if it is state-sanctioned.

While land disputes are common in China, Zhang's popularity has prompted many of the country's Christians to rally around him to defend what they say is religious freedom. They 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.

Among those kept at the house Tuesday were three lawyers and an assistant, who had traveled to Nanle to seek meetings with Zhang and his aides.

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.

The conflict became violent when the thugs forcibly prevented the lawyers and churchgoers from leaving the house on Tuesday, according to Wang and two lawyers 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," said Zhang's lawyer, Xia Jun.

Among those beaten was 63-year-old lawyer Cheng Weishan, who said he was praying for forgiveness of the thugs when they came after him, pulling his briefcase while punching him in the back and hitting his hands to force him to release it.

"I thought they would have some limit when dealing with an elderly person like me, but they had none," said Cheng, who was left with only the briefcase's two handles.

The crowd of thugs grew to about 40, and the lawyers said they 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, 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."

Witnesses said Cao was determined to leave the house on Tuesday but was beaten again.

The thugs grabbed Cao by his limbs, dumped him in front of the house and beat him before he grabbed a kitchen knife for self-defense, Cheng said.

"We have been calling police since yesterday for help, but they never came," Cheng said. "The moment Cao went out with a cleaver, they appeared instantly to chase after him."

Cao was believed to have been taken away again by police.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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