BEIJING, (Reuters) - Chinese police have detained seven members of a Christian church for suspected crimes including embezzlement, state media and one of their lawyers said on Tuesday, after they resisted a government campaign to take down their church's cross.
Communist China officially guarantees freedom of religion though authorities are sometimes suspicious of religious groups. The seven were detained in Zhejiang province which has a growing Christian population and where Christians say authorities have been taking down crosses on churches since last year.
The Xinhua state news agency said the seven were detained on suspicion of amassing large amounts of money from running the church, embezzling donations and instigating others to disrupt the social order.
"Based on our current understanding of the situation, these charges are false," said Chen Jiangang, a lawyer representing one of the seven.
"If they had actively cooperated with the demolition of the church's cross, there would not be any case today."
Two of the seven, Bao Guohua and his wife, Xing Wenxiang, who are preachers at the Holy Love Christian Church in Jinhua city, were taken away by police two weeks ago and have not been able to meet their lawyers, in contravention of the law, Chen said.
Officials at the publicity department of Jinhua police did not pick up repeated calls seeking comment. The Zhejiang government did not respond to a fax requesting comment.
The police publicity department said in a statement titled "Honest pastors' greedy lives", and posted on its website, they had found more than 20 pieces of jewellery and wads of cash in the home of Bao and Xing.
Chen called the statement a smear campaign.
The state-run Global Times newspaper said in July authorities in Zhejiang had denied demolishing crosses on churches, but had said some crosses had been "relocated" out of safety concerns.
Churches have pledged to carry out civil disobedience campaigns if their crosses are forcefully removed, according to ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group.
Many Christians have camped out overnight in their churches to prevent the removal of crosses, according to Zhang Kai, a lawyer representing some Christians.
Protestant churches have to be registered with the official Three Self-Patriotic Movement Committee. Experts say there are up to 60 million Protestants in China, divided between the official and unregistered churches.