By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)-- A local court in China’s western Xinjiang province has reportedly sentenced a Christian woman to three years in prison for holding a Bible study meeting "without government approval" and "gathering a crowd to disturb public order".
Advocacy group ChinaAid said Ma Huichao, who was taken into police custody along with three other Christians, began serving her sentence last week, December 30, after standing trial in mid-November. "Her lawyer Li Dunyong was not allowed to plead innocent on her behalf," ChinaAid said.
The group, which supports Christians in the region, cited a local believer as saying that the Bible study meeting was not a formal gathering as suggested by authorities. "There were no pastors or preachers, only a few people reading the Bible at [Ma's] home. In Urumqi, there are many [Christians] who gather in homes," the Christian reportedly said.
"Why is it possible that they have no problems? [Because the authorities] know very clearly that it is impossible to arrest everyone if they do not gather," added the believer, who wasn't identified apparently amid security concerns.
The Christian stressed that in "those private gatherings, there are no foreigners or cult activities." China's ruling Communist Party forbids Chinese Christians to have contact with Christians from outside the country, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
Christians say the Bible study group and other gathering have been targets because of their reluctance to attend the government-backed Three-Self Church. "There's no way to put them all in jail. Some young police officers don't know anything about religions; they simply think they can win honor for themselves by arresting the believers during gatherings,” the unidentified believer reportedly said.
Ma does not plan to appeal, Christians said.
The Chinese Communist Party has in the past denied any Christian persecution in China. Christians have linked the crackdown to the spread of Christianity in the country which is reportedly seen as a threat to the atheistic philosophy of China's ruling establishment.
There may be as many as 163 million Christians in China, according to the billionbibles.org monitoring website.
Communist officials acknowledge more than 100 million believers in the country, BosNewsLife established. "There are now more Christians in China than in the United States, but this number still represent only about 12 percent of China's 1.4 billion people," the website said. "As large as the Lord's harvest is in China, it has only just begun."