BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese husband and wife who led a Christian congregation that opposed a government campaign to remove crosses atop churches have been given long prison sentences for illegal activities, including corruption and disturbing social order, state media said.
A court in eastern Zhejiang province on Friday sentenced pastor Bao Guohua to 14 years in prison and his wife, Xing Wenxiang, to 12 years after concluding that they had illegally organized churchgoers to petition the government and disturb social order, according to the state-run Zhejiang Daily newspaper.
The couple also was accused of "tricking" members of its congregation into donating $336,000 that was spent on cars and other personal purchases while pretending to lead an ascetic lifestyle, the newspaper said. The court sentenced 10 other church members to prison, the report said, without giving details.
For the past two years, Zhejiang's Christians, particularly in the coastal city of Wenzhou, home to a large Christian population, have been locked in a bitter dispute with local authorities who have removed hundreds of crosses from churches in the province, saying they violate building codes, or demolished churches altogether.
Zhejiang's religious leaders, many of whom lead churches sanctioned by the government, say the attitudes of local authorities have turned sharply negative in recent years as the Christian population grew in number and influence. Several well-known figures who have resisted the government campaign to remove crosses through legal challenges or public denunciations have been targeted with criminal prosecutions.
The clash over the Zhejiang Christians' religious rights has been complicated by the fact that they have received help from overseas supporters at a time when the Chinese government is particularly sensitive to what it considers foreign meddling in domestic issues. In the past year, China's government has relentlessly pursued and jailed human rights lawyers that have received training and funding from foreign sources.
Zhang Kai, a Beijing-based Christian lawyer who was detained one day before he was due to meet a U.S. envoy in August, was shown on television late Thursday night confessing to organizing illegal religious gatherings and undermining China's political system with backing from China Aid, a Texas-based group that has funded the churches' efforts to resist the cross removals.
China Aid said in a blog post Friday that the government action against Bao's church and other Christian leaders amounted to "religious persecution."
Last month, provincial authorities opened a separate corruption probe into the prominent pastor Gu Yuese, who openly spoke out against the government's clampdown on Christian activity. With 10,000 members, Gu's Chongyi church is the largest Protestant congregation in the Chinese-speaking world.