SEOUL/DANDONG, China — A coffee shop in China run by a Canadian couple who are being investigated for threatening national security openly displayed bibles and was known as a meeting point for foreign Christians in the area, people who have been to the cafe on the border with North Korea said on Tuesday.
Christian influences were apparent throughout Peter's Coffee House in the city of Dandong, several people told Reuters, even though such outward signs of religiosity could have drawn attention from Chinese authorities, especially since North Korea is so hostile to proselytizing.
"It couldn't be any more Christian, it's always busy and they play Christian rock music in there," said Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours, a travel company based in China that takes tourists to North Korea and who has visited the shop.
The cafe was closed on Tuesday when a Reuters reporter went there. A notice on a chalkboard in the window said "see you soon". Nearby, a laminated sign posted on the cafe's wall said "Let your faith be bigger than your fear".
China's Foreign Ministry said Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt were under investigation for the suspected theft of military and intelligence information. Their whereabouts are unknown. None of the couple's three adult children could be reached by Reuters for comment.
One of their sons, 27-year-old Simeon Garratt who lives in British Columbia, told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper that his parents were "openly Christian", adding they had sent goods such as cooking supplies to impoverished North Korea.
Neither the Chinese Foreign Ministry nor the official Xinhua news agency, which first announced the probe, mentioned religious activities. But doing anything that could be seen as overtly religious along the sensitive border with North Korea was risky, experts said.
"North Korean authorities cooperate really closely with China basically throughout the border region ... of course there is more risk along the border," said Adam Cathcart, an expert on China-North Korea ties at the University of Leeds.
U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced by Pyongyang last year to 15 years hard labour for attempting to overthrow the state, operated businesses in Dandong and used his tour company Nation Tours to take foreign missionaries across the border into North Korea.
While China can be suspicious of Christian groups, underground churches and foreign missionaries usually operate without too much harassment, experts said.
Peter's Coffee House advertises tours to North Korea on its website. Kevin Garratt leads the tours and knows North Korean tour guides, some of whom frequent the coffee shop on rare visits to China, according to one source familiar with the trips but who declined to be identified due to North Korea's sensitivity to religious groups.
"North Korea, as you know, is very oppressive, it's very challenging, they desperately need hope, and we get this very special privilege of working with some of these incredible people in North Korea," Garratt said in a lecture in November 2013 to the Terra Nova church in Surrey, British Columbia. The church posted an audio clip of the speech on its website.
While Dandong is close to a porous North Korean border that sees hundreds of refugees escaping their homeland every year, none of the sources said there was any indication the Garratts had worked with North Koreans seeking to flee.
Western missionaries working along the border tend to use China as a foothold from which to focus missionary work on North Korea itself, either by setting up businesses or by running tour groups designed to take Christians into the isolated country.
South Korean missionaries also operate in the area, but are not permitted to enter North Korea except for in rare circumstances, and usually work more closely with aiding refugees trying to flee their homeland.
China sees North Korean defectors as economic migrants rather than refugees and forcibly repatriates those found on Chinese soil. But border officials, who are susceptible to bribes, sometimes turn a blind eye to defectors.
Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail said the Garratts were from Vancouver and opened their cafe in 2008.
Sources described the small coffee shop as a buzzy, contemporary place with large tables and a fast Internet that held regular live music and English-language events.
Free English lessons are also offered at the cafe, which sells hamburgers, cheesecakes and milkshakes.
Chinese, North Korean and Canadian flags were on display in the shop, sources who visited the cafe said. There are no references to Christianity on its website.
When Reuters visited on Tuesday, blinds were pulled down over the windows and the entrance was covered by a shutter.
Peter's Coffee House is one of several western cafes or restaurants run by Christians along China's border with North Korea. Many offer free English lessons, and are staffed by locals or visiting Christians.
Sources working in the area said the owners of other Christian-run cafes on the North Korean border might have also come under scrutiny from authorities, although Reuters was unable to confirm those accounts.
"I know they were Christian, but I don't know what kind of work they were involved in," said David Etter, a U.S. citizen who knows the Garratts. His own coffee shop and restaurant, Gina's Place, in the northeastern border city of Yanji, was forced to close recently, citing a lack of customers.
"Obviously the government doesn't want them here," he said of the Garratts.
"The struggles have made us stronger, have increased our faith," Etter's wife Regina wrote of the closure in a blog post last month.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.