Authorities in the central Chinese province of Henan have handed a 12-year jail-term to a prominent Christian pastor for "fraud" and "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," sparking concerns that the government is broadening its campaign against large religious groups.
The sentence handed down to Nanle county pastor Zhang Shaojie suggests the ruling Chinese Communist Party is becoming less and less tolerant of organized religion, even in its state-approved form, rights activists said.
The court ordered Zhang, a former president of the government-sanctioned Protestant association and adviser to the county People's Political Consultative Conference, to pay a fine of 100,000 yuan (U.S.$ 16,000).
Zhang's daughter Zhang Yunyun said the sentence was handed down last Friday, and that the family plans to appeal.
"A lot of the congregation had planned to go to the courtroom, but a lot of [them] were confined to their homes by plainclothes police," she said.
"The majority of our church workers and leaders were forced to stay home, and one preacher was taken away by them."
Zhang Yunyun said her father is innocent of the charges, adding that her aunt Zhang Cuijuan and preacher Chao Junling are also in detention on charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
Zhang's lawyer Zhang Xinyun said there was "no basis" for the charges against his client.
"They have sentenced an innocent person," Zhang Xinyun said. "Not only is this a step backwards for justice in China, but it will also have a chilling effect on Protestant worshipers and the general public."
"This isn't a question of whether the sentence was too heavy; it's a miscarriage of justice," he said. "This judgement is clearly wrong."
He said he argued at the trial that police had detained Zhang Shaojie first, before seeking evidence to use in bringing charges.
"A lot of the evidence was also very contradictory," he said.
The Chinese authorities had been cracking down on Zhang's government-approved Nanle church for about a month before his detention last November following a land dispute that pitted the popular preacher against the county government.
The crackdown on a state-approved church surprised many observers as the Communist government officially allows Christians to only worship in such churches, while unregistered congregations tend to be harassed.
Church supporters say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate Zhang's church a piece of land for the construction of a new building.
Zhang was held under criminal detention on Nov. 17, while officials later later seized control of the state-sanctioned church, sealing it off from the congregation.
Hundreds of Protestant worshipers from Shenzhen, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Hebei, Shandong, and Beijing converged on Nanle county over Christmas to show support for the church, which is a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Three-Self Patriotic Association of Protestant churches.
Some 20 members of the congregation were detained, but have mostly been released, with the exception of two preachers, whose whereabouts are unknown, Zhang Yunyun told RFA.
Meanwhile, prosecution witness and alleged fraud victim Li Cairen has been missing since December 2013 after she was abducted from Zhang's home, and was thus unable to testify for the defense, the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said.
Zhang's detention, which came amid beatings and harassment of his relatives and supporters, was likely a form of official retaliation for the pastor's active role in the land dispute, CHRD said in an e-mailed statement on Monday.
"The detentions were presumably in retaliation for Zhang's efforts to help others seek redress for rights abuses," CHRD said.
"Police did not appear to have a probable cause for Zhang's initial detention, as evidenced by the differences in the nature of the original and newer charges, and the fact that the government failed to produce records of any earlier investigations," it said.
"The harsh sentence reflects that Chinese authorities are expanding harassment and persecution usually aimed at underground house churches by going after officially sanctioned religious institutions," the group said.
Zhang's sentencing comes amid a campaign in eastern China to remove prominent symbols of Christian worship from public places, it added.
Notification about crosses
Authorities in Zhejiang have stepped up a clampdown on Christian places of worship in the region, with dozens of groups receiving notification that crosses must be taken down from buildings.
Local officials are targeting any crosses that are visible from state highways and railway lines, according to local sources.
Within days of the demolition of the the Yahui church's cross in Pingyang county near Zhejiang's Wenzhou city last Friday, some 40 churches in Pingyang and neighboring Cangnan counties have been informed that their crosses will be next.
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades amid sweeping economic and social change.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.