By BosNewsLife Asia Service
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)-- Chinese authorities have "indefinitely postponed" the trial date of an evangelical pastor who has been detained on charges that supporters link to his effective work as a church leader.
Pastor Zhang Shaojie’s trial date, which had been set for February 21, was previously already postponed twice in recent weeks, trial lawyers said.
Zhang’s lawyer Liu Weiguo was notified of the most recent postponement by text message just three days before the scheduled date, said Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
No reason was immediately given for the postponement. Church members have reportedly said that the the delay may be connected to China’s upcoming National Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress.
Christians also believe court authorities are awaiting orders from their superiors.
Pastor Zhang Shaojie, 49, is a leader of the Nanle County Christian Church, which is part of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement. He was detained on November 16, and has since been charged with “fraud” and “disturbing public order”.
On November 15, last year, several other Nanle church members were already detained after petitioning local authorities about a land dispute involving the church, Christian rights activists said.
Other church members were detained in November and December in connection with the case.
In total over 20 church members were detained, BosNewsLife reported earlier. At least nine remained in detention Tuesday, February 25, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an advocacy group closely monitoring the case.
Family members and friends have expressed concerns about the whereabouts of several Christians after Henan provincial authorities announced the immediate closure of all extralegal centres, commonly known as a form of “black jail”, used to hold petitioners intercepted in Beijing.
Shortly after the February 13 announcement, Christians said, a black jail in Henan where three of the detained church members had been held was closed.
"At the time of the transfer, the detainees’ relatives had no information and were worried about their safety," CSW added.
One detainee, Zhao Guoli, has since been able to meet with his lawyer for the first time since his detention on 15 November, according to Christians.
The lawyers representing the detainees have complained about the obstacles faced by attorneys working on this case. They say it has made it almost impossible to perform their duties as legal representatives of the detained.
In December, lawyers submitted an official complaint and investigation request to the regional Puyang Municipal People’s Procuratorate, accusing two officials of illegally depriving citizens of their freedom of religion and of abuse of power.
CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement that the "repeated postponement of Pastor Zhang’s trial, without consulting the lawyers or providing an explanation for the delay, is of great inconvenience to his lawyers and
He also said that the "sudden transfer of three detainees, without notifying their families, serves to underscore the lack of transparency and accountability which has characterised this case to date."
Thomas said rights investigators have urged authorities to respond urgently to the lawyers’ request for an investigation "into the possible abuse of power by
officials handling this case.”
It comes amid reported concern among Communist officials about the spread of Christianity in China, where church groups claim there may be as many as 130 million devoted Christians, with many of them meeting in house churches.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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