Beijing police stop protest by U.S. Christians

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese plainclothes security officials dragged away three American Christian activists on Thursday after they attempted to protest for religious freedom for a second day in Beijing’s main Tiananmen Square.

The three were swooped on as they started a news conference and brief prayer vigil outside the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, just a day before the Olympics open.

“We have come here today to speak out against the human rights abuses of the Chinese government,” Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, told a small group of foreign reporters.

“We have come here today to be a voice to those who are in prison because of their religious beliefs,” he added, as security officials held up umbrellas and their hands to prevent the incident being filmed.

As the three knelt to pray, burly officials dragged them away, trying to block reporters from seeing what was happening and grabbing at microphones.

“We are here to peacefully pray,” said Swindell, national director of Generation Life, while being taken off the square, centre of pro-democracy demonstrations which were crushed by the military in 1989.

The small group had briefly protested against China’s population control policies and forced abortions on the square on Wednesday until stopped by police. They were then, unusually for security-wary China, allowed to leave.

Later on Thursday, police gently asked a group of some eight Dutch Christians, who were singing songs and handing out balloons in the square, to move on.

“The people really want something to worship,” said one of the Christians, a woman who would only give her first name, Natasjah. “Now they’re worshipping the Olympics. They think the Olympics will solve all their problems.”

Four foreign protesters were also held after unfurling Tibet independence banners in Beijing on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Anil Ekmecic and Chris Buckley; Editing by Jeremy Laurence