BEIJING - A group of rights lawyers and churchgoers supporting a jailed Chinese Christian pastor were attacked by hired thugs on Christmas Eve at his house in central China, his wife and two lawyers said.

Wang Fengrui, his wife, said dozens of thugs kicked and punched members of the group Tuesday when they attempted to leave the house in Nanle county in Henan province.

Pastor Zhang Shaojie and his aides were arrested more than a month ago over a land dispute and have been denied access to lawyers. His case has drawn the scrutiny of rights lawyers and activists who say it exposes a county government's ability to act with impunity against a local church even if it is state-sanctioned.

While land disputes are common in China, Zhang's popularity has prompted many of the country's Christians to rally around him to defend what they say is religious freedom. They say the county government reneged on an agreement to provide Zhang's congregation with land for a building, leaving them without a place of worship.

Among those kept at the house Tuesday were three lawyers and an assistant, who had traveled to Nanle to seek meetings with Zhang and his aides.

Five churchgoers who were at Zhang's house along with the lawyers had hoped to hold a prayer meeting Monday to rally support for him, but were prevented by authorities.

The conflict became violent when the thugs forcibly prevented the lawyers and churchgoers from leaving the house Tuesday, according to Wang and two lawyers at the house.