BEIJING - A prominent Chinese Christian activist, detained while heading to a church service attended by President Bush during his Olympics visit, escaped from police and is in hiding, a rights group and his brother said Tuesday.
Hua Huiqi, a leader of the unofficial Protestant church in Beijing, told the rights group that he and his brother were taken by plainclothes security agents while bicycling to Kuanjie Protestant Church on Sunday and were put in separate locations. The brother, Hua Huilin, said he was released a few hours later but Hua Huiqi was still missing.
Police denied any involvement in his disappearance.
"We have not had any contact with Hua Huiqi," an official at the Beijing Public Security Bureau's spokesman's office said Tuesday. "Hence the situation that he has been detained does not exist." He would give only his surname, Zhang.
The New York-based Human Rights in China group said Hua Huiqi contacted them directly Monday and sent a short letter describing his detention and escape.
Hua said he was intercepted by "seven to eight plainclothes officers who beat me and dragged me and my brother Hua Huilin into two separate cars," the group said.
"They asked me why I was going to Kuanjie Protestant Church to worship and threatened me, saying, 'You are not allowed to go ... because President Bush is going there today. If you (try to) go again, we will break your legs,'" the group said Hua wrote.
"After about four or five hours, when I saw that the people who were watching me had all fallen asleep, I fled. But I'm afraid to go home," he wrote.
Hua Huilin said Tuesday he had received at least two calls from public security officers telling him that his younger brother had escaped and that they were seeking information on his whereabouts.
"I haven't heard from him. We've been waiting here. We're so worried," Hua told The Associated Press by phone. "My father asks me every day where he is, and I tell him I don't know."
Chinese authorities often round up activists before and during sensitive periods, taking them to detention centers and other faraway locations. They have further tightened normally stringent restrictions to curb potential criticism or protests during the Olympics.
In the past week, there have been small, short-lived demonstrations by mostly foreign activists in the city and near Olympics venues. No arrests have been announced.
Hua Huiqi was baptized at Kuanjie Protestant Church in 1992. He has become a symbol for the fight for religious freedom in China, which allows worship only in Communist Party-approved churches such as the one Bush visited.
Unauthorized gatherings are routinely broken up and their leaders are often arrested or kept under extremely tight surveillance. According to Human Rights in China, police had warned Hua not to try to go to the church that Bush visited, but the brothers said they managed to slip through security officials guarding their house.
Over the years, Hua has been arrested and beaten because of his religious activities and has served six months in jail for "obstructing official business."
That charge stemmed from an incident in which Hua and his mother scuffled with police in January as they prepared to deliver a petition to the central government over the demolition of their home in 2001.
Hua's mother, who is in her 70s, is serving two years in jail for damaging public property during a protest against one of her son's previous detentions.