December 20, 2014 / 5:40 PM / 5 years ago

China arrests U.S. missionary near North Korea border

BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Friday arrested Korean American missionary who was being held near the country’s border with North Korea, signaling a toughening crackdown on Christian activists in the sensitive region.

Peter Hahn, 74, is being charged with embezzlement and counterfeiting receipts, his lawyer, Zhang Peihong, told Reuters.

Zhang said he believed authorities were targeting Hahn because of his Christian faith and because he ran a non-governmental organization.

“The charges leveled against him are just excuses,” Zhang said.

Hahn, who ran a vocational school in the border town of Tumen, had been under investigation for months, along with several colleagues. In an interview last month, Hahn’s wife, Eunice Hahn, said the building that houses the school was a “mission base camp for our missionaries”.

Eunice Hahn said those under investigation among Hahn’s staff included two U.S. nationals and three South Koreans. Both Zhang and Eunice Hahn said Hahn had aided North Korean defectors more than a decade ago, but he was no longer doing so.

China has long worked to curb the flow of North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland and illegally enter China before going on to other nations, usually ending up in South Korea.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said a U.S. consular official had visited Hahn in jail on Friday.

“We take our obligation to assist U.S. citizens seriously and we stand ready to provide consular services,” Jen Psaki told a regular news briefing in Washington.

In August, sources told Reuters hundreds of Christian missionaries had been forced out of China, most by having their visas refused, in a far-reaching crackdown.

China said it was investigating a Canadian Christian couple who ran a coffee shop in Dandong, further south near the North Korean border, on suspicion of stealing state secrets.

China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the charges against Hahn, but said he was criminally detained. Zhang said law enforcement authorities in Yanbian prefecture, where Hahn is being held, told him on Friday that Hahn had been formally arrested - a more serious status than criminal detention.

Zhang said police had been allowing Hahn to see a doctor regularly. Eunice Hahn said her husband had diabetes and had two strokes this year.

“I just want to bring this to some sort of conclusion,” she said.

Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan, additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Bejing, James Pearson in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler

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