A prominent Christian church leader in China has been imprisoned for his faith and forbidden to contact his family amid an ongoing crackdown on believers in the Communist country.
According to a report from The Guardian, Hu Shigen, a leader of an underground church movement, was this week found guilty of subversion, sentenced to seven years and six months' imprisonment and deprived of political rights for five years.
State media on Wednesday said that Hu, who previously spent 16 years in prison for "political offenses" such as sharing leaflets about China's 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, reportedly confessed to being linked to "foreign anti-China forces" and conspiring with members of the Fengrui firm about "how to get lawyers involved with sensitive incidents".
However, Hu's defenders say his main crime was leading underground Christian churches not monitored by the government and advocating greater freedom of speech and religion.
The pastor's imprisonment comes amid a week of sentencing against Christian rights activists and lawyers, all of whom were detained last year and accused of conspiring to overthrow the Chinese Communist party.
On Monday, state media reported that rights activist Zhai Yamin had confessed to subversion and was given a suspended three-year prison sentence. A day earlier, a prominent lawyer in the Fengrui firm, Wang Yu, was released from detention after appearing in a videotaped interview in which she blamed "foreign forces" for influencing the firm's activities.
Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University, said these "confessions" are "reminiscent of the 'brainwashing' era of the 1950s for which the new China became infamous."
"Brainwashing was based on long-run confinement in a coercive environment combined with heavy doses of thought reform and the realization that release depended on adopting, at least temporarily, the 'new truth'," he wrote in a recent blog post.
Last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping warned that religions must be independent from foreign influence and emphasized that "active efforts should be made to incorporate religions into socialist society."
Thus, in an effort to stifle the growth of Christianity, authorities have sealed a number of house churches, interrogated and threatened congregants, and forcibly removed thousands of crosses from over 1,800 churches since 2014.
Despite ongoing persecution, ChinaAid, which has been monitoring the development of religious freedom in China since 2002, noted in a recent report that Christianity in the Communist country continues to grow.
Because of this, ChinaAid is optimistic that the Christian faith will eventually overcome all obstacles: "Despite the worsening situation of religious freedom in China in the last decade, China Aid sees great hope in the fast growth of the house church movement across China and firmly believes that God's love and justice will eventually cover the vast expanse of this nation."