By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)– Zhang Shaojie, the popular pastor of ‘Nanle Country Christian Church’ (NCCC) in China’s central Henan province, has been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on charges of “fraud” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, Christians confirmed Friday, July 4.
He was also fined 100,000 yuan (about $16.120) on what his supporters believe are trumped-up accusations. .
Pastor Zhang was detained in November as he was seen as “a threat” to Communist authorities who want to control religious policies, well-informed sources told BosNewsLife at the time.
“Up to now a total of more than 20 workers of the Nanle County Christian Church were arrested,” said Zhang Yuenyuen, the daughter of detained pastor, in earlier messages to BosNewsLife.
Six church members arrested in November and December 2013 remain in detention, according to Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
The crackdown is remarkable as the NCCC is part of the state-sanctioned Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
Church members, lawyers and Christians visiting the family of the jailed pastor were beaten, harassed and detained by “hired thugs”, police and government agencies in December 2013, Chinese Christians said.
Trial observers said the date for Pastor Zhang’s trial was changed several times mid concerns about the authenticity of the witnesses’ testimonies. Pastor Zhang was also left with no option but to dismiss his original lawyers when it appeared they were at risk of losing their licences.
Chinese-language commentators on social media are calling the sentence “very heavy”.
The sentence comes just after forced demolitions and the removal of religious symbols from churches in Zhejiang Province prompted fears among some Chinese Christians of increasing restrictions on both state-sanctioned and unregistered congregations by the government, commented Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an advocacy group.
“We are extremely concerned by the lengthy sentence given to Pastor Zhang Shaojie,” added Mervyn Thomas, CSW chief executive. “This result comes after months of uncertainty, in a case riddled with irregularities and extra-legal measures against the detainees and their families, as well as severe restrictions on the entire church congregation,” Thomas told BosNewsLife in a statement.
“We believe there is strong reason to suggest that Pastor Zhang is being targeted because of his position as the leader of Nanle Church, and that the charges against him are false. We call on the Chinese authorities to immediately review the sentence given to Pastor Zhang with a view to securing his unconditional release.”
It comes amid concerns about the treatment of Christian prisoners, including the Gong Shengliang, the jailed founder of South China Church one of China’s largest evangelical house-church denominations.
His family and friends confirmed to BosNewsLife Thursday, July 3, that his health is “rapidly deteriorating” and he may die due to a lack of medical care. Gong, who has been detained in Hubei province since December 2001, is serving a 19-year prison sentence on what friends view as trumped-up charges of assault and rape.
Chinese officials have often denied wrongdoing, saying they want to protect the country against ‘dangerous sects’. Christianity is spreading in China and some officials have suggested there may be as many as 130-million devoted believers.
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