US calls for release of Chinese rights activists

The United States urged China to release a dozen human rights activists and religious figures it said were detained before a planned meeting with a visiting US diplomat. International religious freedom envoy David Saperstein said the activists -- including respected human rights lawyer Zhang Kai, pastors and other Christian figures -- were held during his August 20-28 trip to China. "These detentions fit into the disturbing pattern of state intimidation of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders," Saperstein told reporters. "They clearly underscore the precariousness of religious life in China." The United States has escalated warnings to China on the thorny issue of human rights and religious freedom that could overshadow talks between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama during the Chinese leader's state visit later this month. Saperstein said that Zhang, who he described as a defender of religious rights, was part of a group that had gathered for a meeting with the envoy but that they were all detained the night before it was due to happen. Other people who he did manage to see were later detained too, he added. "It is a source of great concern to us and we are calling on the government to immediately release all these human rights activists and religious leaders." The Communist Party keeps tight control over religion for fear it could challenge its grip on power, requiring believers to worship in places approved by the state and under government supervision. Since Xi came to power in 2013, the government has taken a harder line towards civil and religious society. More than 200 lawyers and activists, including Zhang, were questioned or detained in July as part of a sweeping nationwide crackdown, according to rights groups. In the eastern province of Zhejiang, authorities have stepped up a long-running campaign to remove church crosses, and several Catholic and Protestant churches have been destroyed.