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The Friendship Bridge, which connects the Chinese city of Dandong with Sinuiju in North Korea, is seen amid heavy fog over the Yalu River, in Dandong, Liaoning province December 16, 2010.JACKY CHEN/Reuters

The Canadian couple detained in a frontier Chinese city on suspicion of stealing military secrets has spent years sending food and aid to North Korea, financed by donations from a British Columbia church.

Kevin and Julia Garratt's work in the secretive country, which included a week-long trip at the invitation of several government-controlled agencies in June, was always humanitarian in nature, their family says. But it looms in the background of what observers say are "unprecedented" allegations against Canadian citizens, whose case threatens to again chill relations with China that had in recent years showed signs of new warmth.

In 2008, the couple moved to Dandong, a Chinese city on the northwestern border with North Korea. They opened a western food restaurant called Peter's Coffee House just steps from the Yalu River, which tourists swim for the thrill of briefly setting foot on the foreign soil that lies on the other side. The front windows of the café look out onto the trucks and trains crossing the China-Korean Friendship Bridge, a vantage point that allows Mr. Garratt to pursue a hobby of photographing illicit supplies crossing into the country, his children said.

But the couple's life here held an importance well beyond serving lattes and snapping pictures. For Kevin, a 54-year-old Pentecostal pastor and Julia, a 53-year-old English teacher, Dandong offered a springboard into the inward-looking Communist state.

For years, funded by six-figure annual donations from churchgoers in Canada, they worked to send in kimchi, soy milk and North Koreans who had received religious training.

On Monday evening, the couple were detained by Chinese authorities and placed under investigation. In a statement Tuesday, China's foreign ministry said they "are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defence scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China's national security."

In Canada, the government was virtually silent, telling reporters it is watching, but saying little more – for now cautiously trying to avoid escalating the case into a public dispute with Beijing. A foreign affairs spokesman struck a terse statement.

Canadian consular officials, John Babcock said, are "providing assistance to two Canadian citizens who have been placed under investigation in China." They "are in contact with local Chinese authorities and the family, and are monitoring developments closely," he said.

The allegations against the Garratts come a week after Canada publicly accused China of hacking into computer systems at the National Research Council, raising worries that Beijing is engaged in a kind of diplomatic retaliation. On Tuesday, counsellor Yang Yundong, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, cautioned that "we believe there is no need to over-interpret this case."

But the seriousness of the accusations, which are rarely made against foreigners and carry a maximum penalty of death, has brought new scrutiny to the Garratts and how their work could have brought them into the crosshairs of the Chinese government, sparking a potential diplomatic crisis between two countries whose relationship had been slowly warming.

In 2008, the year the couple came to Dandong, they set up North Star Aid, a Canadian registered charity run by the Garratts and corporately controlled by Pastor Rich Kao's Five Stones Church, located just outside Vancouver in New Westminster.

Public filings from recent tax years show that the church has earmarked between $100,000 and $200,000 each year for North Star.

"North Star Aid seeks to serve the people of North Korea primarily through providing humanitarian aid," the charity's website says. (In filings, Five Stones says its own good works include "food aid, clothing, school supplies and Bible training in Asia.") Its photo gallery shows pictures of its people bringing flour, soy milk, and other food, as well as school and medical supplies, into North Korea.

The trip this year was a breakthrough of sorts, and a measure of Pyongyang's trust in their humanitarian aims.

"It's, 'you guys have done some things, you've proven yourself to be reliable and trustworthy, let's see if there is other things you can help us out with.' That was my feeling about the trip," Mr. Kao said.

They went in late June, checking to ensure previously donated items, such as a machine to make soy milk, had made it to those in need, and looking for new places to help.

They "visited a couple of different homes for the elderly and orphanages" and were heartbroken by what they saw, said Peter Garratt, 21, who is the only one of the couple's four children currently in Dandong.

"It's really a different world than here. The living conditions and the kids and stuff – anybody who sees it will feel a pang," he said.

On their return June 30, Kevin Garratt sent a short e-mail to his children: "Back from our trip. It was really good. Amazing, really."

Knowing North Korea's sensitivity to religion – in May, Pyongyang sentenced a South Korean missionary to a life of hard labour – the couple did not spread Bibles or actively proselytize, he said. "They know the restrictions and they want to keep it very clear that they're just trying to do humanitarian work," Peter said.

But in China, their work was different. According to a sermon Kevin delivered to a Surrey, B.C., church in November and heard by Agence France-Presse, North Koreans often come to a "training house" in Dandong, he said, and "99 per cent of the people we meet go back to North Korea, because they have to preach the gospel in North Korea, because God has compelled them to go."

The Garratts also used their presence in Dandong to reach the local population. They held a weekly Sunday church service at their home, and kept a Bible on a rack of novels and other literature inside their coffee shop. Those books were missing on Tuesday, presumed to be confiscated by the authorities.

"They are not spreading the gospel, but if people have questions, they are open to talk," said Peter, who on Tuesday evening was himself called in for questioning. He was asked to come to the State Security Bureau office in Dandong with toiletries and clothes for his parents. He was not allowed to see them, but was offered soothing words.

"They told me my parents are well and being cared for, and told me to take it easy and not to worry," he said.

But worry has been difficult to avoid, amid the confusion around his parents' fate. If their religious activities, or their North Korean work, were behind China's concern, why now? Why not at any other point in the 30 years since they first came to China, or the six since arriving in Dandong? Answers were not easy to come by.

"Honestly, I have no clue where this came from, or why, or anything," Peter said.

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