US urges release of Chinese rights lawyer

WASHINGTON - Washington on Wednesday renewed its call for China to release a Christian rights activist detained just before he was to meet a US envoy researching religious freedom.

Secretary of State John Kerry and the envoy, Ambassador David Saperstein, urged Beijing to free lawyer Zhang Kai, as they released a report on religious persecution.

"I urge the release of men and women detained or imprisoned anywhere in the world for the peaceful expression and practice of their religious beliefs," Kerry told reporters.

"This includes Mr Zhang Kai, a Chinese Christian human rights lawyer who was detained in late August just prior to a scheduled meeting with Ambassador Saperstein, and whose present whereabouts are unknown."

As part of the preparation for the State Department's annual report into the state of religious freedom around the world, Saperstein visited China August 20-28 to meet officials and activists.

Beijing rejected the criticism Thursday, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying that Washington was referring to "Chinese citizens and the Chinese government will deal with these cases in accordance with the law."

The US had "no right to interfere with China's judicial sovereignty and China's domestic affairs under any pretext," she added at a regular briefing.

Launching his report, Saperstein said that in areas where the Chinese government's "hand is lighter" there are flourishing religious communities, but that in some regions a harsh crackdown is under way.

That included Zhang, described by Saperstein as "peaceful, respected."

China's ruling 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.

And since President Xi Jinping 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.

In Wenzhou, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, authorities have stepped up a long-running campaign to remove crosses and several churches have been destroyed.

Saperstein told reporters in Washington that three human rights lawyers, four pastors and three or four other activists were detained before he could meet them.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua dismissed his document.

"We hope the US can discard its prejudice, respect the facts, stop issuing such reports and stop interfering in China's domestic affairs under the flag of religious issues," she said.

"China fully respects people's right to believe," she added.