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南华早报:临汾审判Leaders of ‘house’ church jailed for up to seven years

Leaders of ‘house’ church jailed for up to seven years
Verna Yu
Nov 27, 2009

A court has sentenced five leaders from one of the largest underground churches on the mainland to jail terms ranging from three to seven years, apparently stepping up the prosecution of what the government calls unauthorised religious groups.
After a 13-hour trial, the Yaodu District People’s Court in Linfen , Shanxi , sentenced Pastor Wang Xiaoguang to three years in prison on Wednesday and his wife, Yang Rongli, to seven years. Others were given terms of between 3-1/2 and 5-1/2 years, lawyer Zhang Kai said.

The five were convicted on two charges: illegal occupation of agricultural land and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic, with one church leader also convicted of an additional charge of tax evasion, Zhang said.

He said the five insisted on their innocence during the trial, which ended late on Wednesday night.

“Even if you jail us for 20 years, we’ll still stand by our faith because we’re accountable to God,” Zhang quoted Yang as telling the court. Zhang said the prosecution did not produce adequate evidence to convict them.

More than 10 church members, including the convicted five, were arrested shortly after a new church building was raided and damaged by police on September 13.

After the incident, military police were sent to occupy the main church building, stopping about 5,000 members of the regular congregation from worshipping there.

Including its satellite churches in the countryside, the 31-year-old Linfen “house” church has around 50,000 members.

Zhang said the church was targeted by the government because it was getting too big.

“This is a very serious breach of religious freedom,” he said. “They saw that the church building was so large and impressive and it had 50,000 followers. The government feels pressured.”

During the trial, about 1,000 police officers stood on guard outside the courthouse, and the atmosphere was tense, Zhang said.

Legal scholar Dr Fan Yafeng said the central government had stepped up persecution of unregistered “house churches” and the Christians’ jail terms were the harshest imposed on underground church members in recent years.

Critics say the central government is increasingly using non-religious charges to prosecute Christians to avoid criticism from the West.

The sentencing of the church leaders came just three days after leaders from another large underground church, in Shanghai, were detained and questioned by police over “illegal gathering”.

“The government is utilising law as a persecution tool,” Fan said. “These persecutions are using up its last legitimate resources.”

Officially atheist, the ruling Communist Party permits worship only in state-approved churches, although millions of Christians continue to worship in such unregistered “house” churches.