A total of 20 people sent to China by a religiously inspired charity have been detained, most of them British or South African, the organisation said, adding some had been accused of watching “propaganda videos”.
Gift of the Givers, a disaster relief charity based in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, said 20 of its associates were detained Friday at Ordos airport in China’s Inner Mongolia region.
It said 10 were South Africans, nine British, and one an Indian national.
“No reasons were given for the arrest. The Chinese, now trying to find reasons for the detention suggested that some members were linked to a terror group,” it added.
As of Tuesday 11 had been released, it added on a Facebook page. “The other nine are being held without charge at a detention centre on the accusation that they were watching propaganda videos.”
The public security ministry in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment by AFP.
Gift of the Givers describes itself on its website as being inspired by Muhammed Saffer Effendi al Jerrahi, a master of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam.
The group, which has provided medical equipment and training in multiple countries in Asia and Africa, says its staff are “facilitators of Almighty God’s Aid… distributing it from Him to all of mankind. This is made possible only by His Grace and Permission.”
“God Almighty Exists,” it adds. “This is a Gracious God to Whom belong the Most Beautiful Attributes.”
Chinese regulations passed in 2000 ban foreigners from all missionary activity including “distributing religious propaganda materials.”
The ruling Communist party, suspicious of overseas groups, has in recent months tightened controls on foreign charities working in the country.
State-run media have accused some foreign groups of attempting to foment revolution and overthrow the party.
Police too have cracked down on foreign missionaries in China, detaining a Canadian Christian couple near the North Korean border last year.
Beijing also blames what it calls Islamist terrorists for ongoing violence in the mainly Muslim far western region of Xinjiang.
The South Africans were originally detained “with no access to communication or legal representation” and included several doctors, Gift of the Givers said.
The group’s planned 47-day tour of China had gone “horribly wrong”, it added.
A spokeswoman for the British embassy in Beijing said Wednesday that 11 British citizens had been held in northern China, two of whom held South African dual nationality.
Officials were seeking “further clarifications” on the detentions, spokeswoman Natasha Simpson added.
South African foreign affairs ministry spokesman Nelson Kgwete told local television that the government had been informed “about the arrest of 10 South African citizens in China” and the embassy was providing consular assistance.