Lawyers in China are currently partaking in a hunger strike to protest being blocked by the government's Communist officials from visiting a Christian pastor who is currently being detained by authorities. The lawyers argue that the police are violating state law by preventing them from accessing their clients.
Fifteen lawyers started their hunger fast Thursday to protest the pastor's detainment and have said that they will not stop the strike until they are able to see their client. The lawyers traveled to Nanle county in Henan to visit detained pastor Zhang Shaojie, the leader of a government-approved Christian church who was recently detained along with other church leaders under vague charges of obstructing government business. Two of Zhang's lawyers, Xia Jun and Liu Weiguo, told the Associated Press that they believe their client was arrested for resisting the attempts of the state to seize his church property.
"We strongly believe that this is a clear case of persecution of a religious group," Liu said in a phone interview with AP.
Since Zhang's arrest in mid-November, the pastor's family members and friends have gathered at the local police station in Nanle in protest of both Zhang and two dozen other members of Zhang's church who were also detained last month. ChinaAid, a Texas-based religious rights group, reports that police authorities clashed with the protesters, striking some and "causing Pastor Zhang's [elderly] parents [to be hospitalized] for high blood pressure." Additionally, Zhang's two sisters, also present at the protest, were taken into custody.
Zhang's arrest comes shortly after China announced it would be ending its controversial re-education through labor program that enables government officials to detain petty criminals and those who contradict that state's political or religious values for up to four years. The decision by China to abolish the labor camp practice was heralded by human rights groups across the world as a major step for the Asian country's human rights record.
However, media outlets point out that Zhang's recent detainment is particularly concerning because he is the leader of a state-approved church, and therefore his religious rights and church property should have been respected by local police.
Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of the Christian rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, demanded in a statement that Zhang's lawyers be able to visit him during his detainment.
"We urge the local officials in Nanle County to allow the lawyers representing Pastor Zhang and the other church members to meet with their clients in accordance with the law. We call on all the authorities involved to make clear any charges brought against the detainees, and to ensure that they have access to legal representation and meetings with their family members."