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Christians say China police forcibly evicted them

BEIJING (Reuters) -- Police in central China dispersed a group of Christians who had been living in their church to protect it from being demolished, a human rights group said on Saturday.

On the evening of June 8, police entered the old Protestant church in Xian, dragging some of the 50 protesters into cars and locking the church door, the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said.The protesters were freed later that evening, the Hong Kong-based group said.

An official with the Xian City Administration for Religious Affairs acknowledged that churchgoers had been evicted from the basement of the church but rejected suggestions that police were involved and said the church was open for worship.

"About 20 old women were living in the basement," the official said. "We told them it was dangerous and promised that the church would not be torn down until a new church was completed," he said.

The battle for the old church stretches back more than a year when the government association in charge of Protestantism sold the church to property developers.

The government agreed to build a new, larger church for the congregation in a northern suburb. But some angry Christians have accused the government of persecution, saying the new location was too remote.

Other worshippers have lamented the destruction of a historic building for which they raised $72,500 to renovate after it was vandalized during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76.

Several had moved into the church to guard it around the clock and erected banners, such as "The property of the church belongs to the worshippers."

Last month around 500 Christians formed a human chain to block police from entering the church, the rights group said.

The religious affairs official said the church would be torn down to make way for a road and another unspecified development project.