BEIJING, Sept. 5 (AP)--China said Tuesday that more than 100 people arrested in what human rights campaigners called a crackdown on an underground Christian church were really members of an illegal cult.

A Hong Kong-based group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, reported that 130 members of the Fangcheng church, including three American evangelists later deported, were rounded up in a sweep in central China's Henan province on Aug. 23.

But in his ministry's first comment on the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said, "There is no such thing as the so-called Fangcheng religion in China."

Instead, Sun said leaders of a banned cult he identified as the "national scope church" illegally organized a gathering of 105 people in Henan's Xihua county on Aug. 23.

The meeting "seriously affected the normal production and lives of people in the area" and was broken up by police acting on public complaints, he said.

"The so-called national scope church is a cult organization that has been banned by the government," Sun said.

China is increasingly using anti-cult laws tightened last year during a crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement to target other groups, including underground churches and meditation groups that officials view as threats.

The Fangcheng church's founder, Zhang Rongliang, was sentenced to two years in a labor camp in December on charges of leading a cult.

The group is one of scores of clandestine Christian communities known as house churches because they are unable to worship in public. The officially atheistic communist government forbids worship outside state-sanctioned churches.

Sun said China protects religious freedom but "religion should be strictly differentiated from cults."

The three deported Americans admitted to breaking Chinese law, Sun said.

The three, Patricia Lan, 25, Henry Chu, 36, and his wife Sandee Lin, 29, are members of the California-based Chinese Vineyard Church Fellowship, which has been sending small teams of missionaries to China since 1994.

Sun said authorities also carried out "education work" on the more than 100 other participants at the meeting and "persuaded them to return to their hometowns."

That clashed with statements by the Information Center, which said Monday that 85 of those detained have been formally arrested on cult charges.

But Sun said foreign media reports on the crackdown "distorted the facts."

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