Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang on Thursday handed down jail terms of 14 and 12 years to husband-and-wife Protestant pastors following a crackdown on churches in a region known as "China's Jerusalem."
Protestant pastors and married couple Bao Guohua and Xing Wenxiang of the Holy Love Christian church were sentenced to 14 and 12 years' imprisonment respectively by the Wucheng District People's Court in Zhejiang's Jinhua city.
They were both found guilty of "encroachment," "running an illegal business," "disturbing public order," and "concealing financial records," their congregants told RFA.
Local police and official media had accused the couple of living "greedy lives," reporting that jewelry and cash from congregants' donations were found in the couple's home.
"Xing Wenxiang was sentenced to 12 years, while Bao Guohua got 14 years," a Holy Love church member told RFA.
The court also handed suspended jail sentences to 10 other church members, who were allowed to walk free after the sentencing, the church member said.
"The others are all back at home now ... they were all sentenced on four criminal charges," the church member said.
Others also held
The sentences came after the authorities detained at least 16 pastors and other church members in and around Zhejiang's Wenzhou city during confrontations with the authorities over a long-running cross removal program in the province.
China is home to an estimated 60 million Protestant Christians, some 23 million of whom are members of the government-backed Three-Self Patriotic Movement, as required by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese religious believers may practice only five officially recognized religions, and only in officially approved religious premises.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party oversees every aspect of religious life, including organizations' activities, employee details, and financial records. It also appoints religious personnel, and vets religious publications and seminary applications, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its 2016 annual report.
Last year, Zhejiang authorities launched a regional campaign targeting visible church crosses for demolition as "illegal structures" in the name of civic pride.
But HRW cited an internal provincial directive as saying that the campaign is designed to reduce the prominence of Christianity in the region.
"At least a hundred Christians have reportedly been briefly detained for resisting the demolitions since the start of the campaign in early 2014," the group said in a statement on its website.
And Bao and Xing aren't the first to face jail time for their opposition to the demolitions.
At least one church leader, Huang Yizi, was convicted of "gathering crowds to disturb social order" and jailed for one year last March, HRW said.
Last June, a top party official told religious leaders that "hostile forces" from overseas are using religion to infiltrate China, and called for a campaign to "Sinicize" the nation's religious activities, it said.
And in August, the National People’s Congress (NPC) changed the Criminal Law to lengthen prison penalties for organizing and participating in groups designated "evil cults" by the government to a maximum of life imprisonment.
Earlier this month, the Chinese Communist Party issued new guidelines banning its members from following any religion, even after they retire from official life, amid an ideological campaign by President Xi Jinping targeting any activity seen as "importing" values and cultural practices from overseas.
Xi has cited religion in particular as a means by which "hostile foreign forces" seek to exert a subversive influence in China.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.