By BosNewsLife Asia Service
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)- China has unexpectedly released the deputy chairman of a major organization representing the country's growing number of house churches, after he served six months of a two-year "re-education through labor" sentence, rights activists told BosNewsLife Tuesday January 24.
Pastor Shi Enhao of the Chinese House Church Alliance was freed Friday, January 20, explained advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which closely monitored the case.
The reason for his early release was not immediately known.
Pastor Shi Enhao was given the two-year sentence in July 2011 for “holding illegal meetings and organizing illegal venues for religious meetings” due to his role in the unofficial Chinese house church network.
Chinese Christians said he was "now safely at home" with his family. The "re-education through labor" system, through which Chinese citizens can be sentenced without a trial, was given by officials in China's Jiangsu province, trial observers said.
HUNDRERDS OF CHURCHES
Pastor Shi, who oversees several hundred house churches with thousands of members, had previously disappeared on June 12 last year, last year before police reportedly confirmed his detention on nine days later.
CSW said early release is rare, except in cases of illness.
Pastor Shi is deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance, a large umbrella organization for house churches. Leaders of the group have faced "severe persecution" in the past, including arrest, imprisonment and harassment, CSW and Chinese Christians say.
Pastor Shi had reportedly been harassed for some time prior to his arrest.
OTHER DETAINED CHRISTIANS
“CSW welcomes the release of Pastor Shi Enhao and urges the Chinese authorities to respect the right to religious freedom for all its citizens, as guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, by releasing others including Uyghur Christian, Alimujiang Yimiti, lawyer Gao Zhisheng and legal expert Dr Fan Yafeng,” said CSW's Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston.
China had no official comment but the government has in general denied wrongdoing, saying Christians can worship within state-approved churches. However many of the as many as 130 million Christians in China prefer gathering outside government control in what are known as house churches.
Rights activists and Christians say 2011 several cases of arrest, disappearance, harassment and confiscation of property among house church Christians in China. Additionally 2011 saw a crackdown "on any form of dissent, with lawyers, writers, religious leaders, Tibetans, Uyghurs and others affected," CSW said.
PROFESSOR'S FAMILY FLEES
News of the pastor's release came as the wife and son of outspoken former Chinese professor Guo Quan, who is serving a 10-year sentence for "subversion", left China for a new life in the United States, rights group China Aid Association (CAA) said Tuesday, January 24.
The news comes days after Yu Jie, a famous writer who defiantly published a critical biography of Premier Wen Jiabao in 2010 in Hong Kong, also fled into exile in the United States after he was reportedly physically abused by authorities.
Li Jing and the 12-year-old Guo Yi arrived in Los Angeles on Monday by plane to start a new life in the United States, said US-based CAA.
"They will be appealing to the US government and international groups to pay close attention to Guo’s case and for help in winning his release," the group said, without providing further details.
Guo -- a former university professor in eastern China -- was reportedly jailed in October 2009 for "subversion of state power." He was an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and also advocated a "multi-party, competitively elected democratic system", according to the US-based Human Rights in China.
LOSING UNIVERSITY POSITION
He was stripped of his position by Nanjing Normal University in late 2007, and was arrested the following year after publishing articles and letters online addressed to President Hu Jintao and other leaders.
"Subversion of state power" is a charge that critics of China's ruling Communist Party -- which maintains a firm grip on all political activity in the country -- say is often used to silence dissenters.
Chinese observers say that Li and Guo's exile comes at a sensitive time in China, as the Communist-run nation is preparing for a major leadership transition in the autumn that has triggered official concern about anything that could provoke unrest in the country.
Three activists were recently jailed in the space of just one month for nine to 10 years -- all for subversion.
Rights groups and Western government have also voiced concern about other dissidents in China including Chen Guangcheng, a blind self-taught lawyer who uncovered alleged forced abortions under the country's one-child policy, reported French News Agency AFP.