Pastor Sent to Labor Camp

Sentence follows Chinese authorities' growing clampdown on 'unofficial' churches.

A woman walks to a Christian church in Beijing, April 17, 2011.

Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu have sent the pastor of an unofficial Protestant "house church" to labor camp for two years.

The family of Shi Enhao, deputy chairman of the China Alliance of House Churches, was summoned to sign a document acknowledging the sentence by the Suqian municipal national security police last week.

"He is the leader of the Suqian House Church," said Shi's lawyer Zhang Kai, who also confirmed the news. "They have seized around 100,000 yuan (U.S. $15,500) in donations from the church too."

"I went to the police to see about his case ... but they wouldn't let me see him, because they said it was a case involving secrets, so visits weren't allowed."

Shi's son had seen the document announcing the two-year sentence to "reform through labor," Zhang Kai said, adding that he had not seen it himself yet.

"He is in a dire situation,"  said Zhang Mingxuan, who heads the nationwide Protestant Chinese House Church Alliance. "He has done nothing wrong. He is just a pastor."

"He didn't break the law of the land. They are just making an example of him, by saying that he opposes the Party and has held illegal gatherings, and that he set up illegal churches. There were a lot of charges."

Authorities 'nervous'

Zhang said Shi, who first became a pastor in 2007, was initially detained by police on May 31 and had been held incommunicado until now.

Shi once presided over the Suqian city house church, which has several thousand followers, a fact that Zhang believes made city authorities nervous.

Zhang said the Suqian Christians were afraid to come together in worship in the wake of Shi's sentence.

According to Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian group China Aid, Shi's church had become very high profile in its hometown, boasting a congregation of several thousand and its own choir and band which would frequently put on public concerts as a way of "spreading the Gospel."

"[Shi] has made a positive contribution to spreading the Gospel in China for a number of years," Fu said. "He has also worked very hard to protect the rights of house church members."

"They have ... trumped up these charges of illegal assembly and so forth against him," he said.

Frequent raids

Unofficial Christian church members and leaders are being targeted by China's government in its latest clampdown on dissent sparked by calls for "Jasmine" rallies inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East earlier this year.

Hundreds of members of the Shouwang Protestant church have been repeatedly detained by police in Beijing for attending open-air prayer gatherings after the government blocked access to the church's own premises.

While leaders of China's unofficial churches, which overseas groups estimate as having some 40 million followers, say their activities have little to do with politics or human rights, raids on unofficial worship have been stepped up in a recent nationwide security clampdown.

Shouwang's 1,000-strong congregation has had problems finding a venue to hold services, a situation that leaders blame on government interference.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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