Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan are investigating Early Rain Covenant Church pastor Wang Yi on charges of "incitement to subvert state power" and "illegal business activities."
Wang, who founded the church, was detained by police in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu on Dec. 14, 2018 on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," alongside dozens of church members in a raid that prompted an international outcry.
But while the majority of those detained in the wake of the crackdown have since been released, Wang remains behind bars, even though the statutory investigation period on his case has lapsed, his attorney said in a post to Facebook.
The pastor has also had a charge added to his sheet, of "running an illegal business," lawyer Zhang Peihong said.
Zhang said the authorities recently turned down a request for a meeting with his client, who has lost weight while in detention, but whose mental state is stable.
Repeated calls to Zhang's cell phone rang unanswered on Thursday.
A local Christian who asked for anonymity said the "illegal business" charge is likely due to the fact that there is scant evidence to support the subversion charge.
"They want to charge Pastor Wang Yi with inciting subversion, but even they know that this isn't a very persuasive accusation," the person said. "So they are hoping for a breakthrough using economic [crimes]."
Some church members who detained in raids on Dec. 9 and 10 and later released said the police had beaten them, and one detainee described being tied to a chair and deprived of water and food for 24 hours, rights groups reported at the time.
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the authorities also ransacked and sealed Early Rain Covenant Church’s properties, including offices, a kindergarten, a seminary, and a Bible college, and searched the homes of many of its members.
Police also forced church members to sign a pledge not to attend the church again, while the church’s accounts on China’s social media platform WeChat were removed, it said.
Around half of the church's original membership remain under close surveillance by police, according to a Christian surnamed Li.
"There's nothing we can do," Li said. "Any more than about five or six people gathered together will attract attention ... and if they find you, you will be detained."
"Around 50 to 60 percent of Early Rain members are currently under surveillance right now," she said. "Their phones and [social media accounts on] WeChat are being monitored."
Church elders Li Yingqiang and Zhang Defu are also under criminal detention on charges of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and "running an illegal business."
Wang Yi had earlier published an essay critical of the government’s tight control over religion, and calling on China’s Christians to resist and peacefully disobey new rules issued by the ruling Chinese Communist Party severely restricting the activities of religious organizations.
Xu Yonghai, an elder of the Beijing Protestant house church Christian Saints Love Fellowship, said the Chinese government is increasingly using trumped-up "illegal business" charges to target Christian organizations.
"This charge makes no sense, because there are no business activities," Xu said. "All the Bibles are given away for nothing. A lot of churches give away Bibles that aren't official publications, so there's no business being run here at all."
"A lot of house churches photocopy materials and hand it out for free; who makes money from printing the Bible?" he said.
Wang, 46, founded the Early Rain Covenant church in 2008 after several years of political activism that saw him named as "one of the most influential public intellectuals" by the Southern Weekend newspaper in 2004.
A graduate the Sichuan University Law School, Wang went on to teach at Chengdu University. He also founded an online forum to study progress in China towards constitutional government.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party, which embraces atheism, exercises tight controls over any form of religious practice among its citizens.
China is home to an estimated 68 million Protestants, of whom 23 million worship in state-affiliated churches, and some nine million Catholics, 5.7 million of whom are in state-sponsored organizations.
The administration of President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning last year against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
A crackdown on Protestant churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang has widened and intensified to other regions of China during the past year, church members have told RFA.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.