Pastor Shi Enhao, deputy chairman of CHCA, was sentenced to "re-education through labor" -- an extrajudicial punishment that requires no conviction or trial -- because of his position in an influential umbrella group of Chinese house churches.
ChinaAid, a group that monitors religious freedom in China, reported that Shi's current charge is for "illegal meetings and illegal organizing of venues for religious meetings."
To become legal, Chinese churches must be registered with the government and join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But with registration comes restrictions on Sunday School, baptisms for minors and evangelism, said Bob Fu, president and founder of ChinaAid.
According to ChinaAid, the labor camp sentence is not the first police action against Shi in Suqian City, which is 500 miles south of Beijing and home to more than 5 million people. The pastor was detained by police March 31 and held for 12 days.
Then, the Suqian Public Security Bureau detained the pastor June 21 for "suspicion of using superstition to undermine national law enforcement," ChinaAid reported, noting that criminal detention is the first step in a legal process that usually ends in a criminal offense and a prison sentence.
Shi's story unfolds against the backdrop of Shouwang Church, with nearly 1,000 members in Beijing, which has been attempting to meet outdoors despite persecution since April. Some have criticized Shouwang Church for trying to continue meeting as one large congregation instead of breaking up into smaller house churches like CHCA has done.
Shi's church, with a congregation of several thousand, is actually larger than Shouwang but the CHCA members have been meeting in multiple locations across the city in an attempt to pass under the police's radar. However, ChinaAid noted, Shi's sentence shows that contrary to critics of Shouwang, investigation and punishment are not limited to large one-site churches.
CHCA has already faced persecution from the Chinese government for worshipping illegally. The Domestic Security Protection Department ordered CHCA to stop meeting and confiscated the umbrella group's car, musical instruments, choir robes and 140,000 yuan -- the equivalent to more than $21,000 -- in donations, according to ChinaAid.
Shi's family has served the church in China for four generations, and since the investigation of illegal churches his three daughters and their husbands also have been threatened by police, ChinaAid reported.
Whitney Jones is a student at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and an intern with Baptist Press.
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