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A notice indicating the closing of the shop is placed behind the window of the coffee shop owned by Canadians Kevin Garratt and Julia Garratt in Dandong, China, on Aug. 5, 2014. China is investigating the Canadian couple for alleged theft of state secrets. (REUTERS)
A notice indicating the closing of the shop is placed behind the window of the coffee shop owned by Canadians Kevin Garratt and Julia Garratt in Dandong, China, on Aug. 5, 2014. China is investigating the Canadian couple for alleged theft of state secrets. (REUTERS)

Cafés in China caught in political spats Add to ...

Three weeks before detaining a Canadian Christian couple it has accused of espionage, China froze the bank accounts of a Korean-American man running a Christian non-profit organization near the border with North Korea.

Peter Hahn operated a school in Tumen, China, and ran several businesses, including a bakery, in North Korea. He was placed under investigation by Chinese authorities three weeks ago and has had his bank accounts frozen, a source with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters, which reported the case Thursday.

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On Monday, Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt were detained by China’s State Security Bureau and accused of stealing Chinese military and defence research secrets. The couple, who operated a charity that brought humanitarian goods to North Korea, ran a coffee shop and weekly English classes in Dandong, China.

But it now appears the closing of their café, which was ordered by security agents this week, was not an isolated event.

A third Christian-run restaurant operated by Americans on the sensitive border was also forced to close down in recent weeks.

“The situation is getting more confusing by the minute,” said Rich Kao, the senior pastor at Five Stones Church in New Westminster, B.C., which supported the Garratts.

Mr. Hahn, the Korean-American man, is not permitted to leave the country, Reuters said, citing a source who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

He runs a school for ethnic Korean children in the border city of Tumen and operates several humanitarian projects and joint-venture companies inside North Korea, including a local bus service in the Rajin-Songbon Special Economic Zone. Attached to the Tumen River Vocational School is also a restaurant called the Green Apple Café.

Meanwhile, a third café owned by Christian Westerners in Yanji, another Chinese city near the North Korean border, had to close in mid-July, its owners wrote in several online postings. Gina’s Place Western Restaurant opened in 2008, the same year the Garratts opened their café. (The owners of the two establishments knew each other, with Gina’s helping the Garratts find a supplier for Dr. Pepper and A&W root beer.)

Gina’s was run by David and Regina Etter, who described their café as a place where “ministry took place,” in the form of “curious customers engaging in conversations about our Father.” The family’s online posts suggest they helped convert local Chinese to Christianity.

The Etters also maintained an interest in North Korea. After North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died in 2011, Ms. Etter wrote a blog post contemplating the implications.

“Will those who were once persecuted for their faith rise up and proclaim the Truth?” she wrote. “We have been asking for our Father to strengthen believers inside and to give them boldness to stand. Is this the time? I hope so.”

Mr. Etter told Reuters money problems were to blame for Gina’s closure and said each of the cafés shut its doors for different reasons.

“With the Garratts, that was tit-for-tat with what happened in Canada,” he said, referring to Canada accusing China of hacking into government computers. “Peter Hahn is a different issue, I think it’s more related to his faith and the work he was doing.

“He was very open about his faith and why he was doing what he was doing,” Mr. Etter told Reuters.

China and North Korea ban proselytizing by missionaries; in North Korea, mere possession of a Bible can be punished with imprisonment and torture. China has applied new pressure to Chinese Christians in recent months.

That has included tearing down some churches, removing crosses from other church buildings and restricting the ability of publishers to print Christian books.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, has in the past two years sentenced at least two foreign missionaries to lengthy prison terms.

The work of those manning the cafés on the North Korean border mixed faith with humanitarian work.

“This is not a handout,” Mr. Hahn told the Los Angeles Times in 2005, discussing the bakery and a soybean paste factory he ran. “I want to help rehabilitate the people and the land. … To do that, they have to learn to do things for themselves.”

With reports from Colin Freeze and Reuters

Follow on Twitter: @nvanderklippe

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