A Christian woman in China has been sentenced to three years in prison for holding a Bible study amid an ongoing crackdown on believers in the country.
According to persecution watchdog China Aid, Ma Huichao was taken into police custody along with four other Christians back in November when officials claimed their Bible study met without government approval.
She later stood trial for "gathering a crowd to disturb public order," and her lawyer, Li Dunyong, was disallowed to plead innocent on her behalf. A court in China's western Xinjiang subsequently handed Me a three-year prison sentence which began on Dec. 30. The outlet notes that Ma does not plan to appeal her sentence.
While China officially guarantees freedom of religion, ruling Communist Party officials are sometimes suspicious of religious groups, fearing that opposition to its rule could be spread by groups outside its control. Last year, President Xi Jinping called for religions to adapt to Chinese society, which he referred to as the "sinicization of religion."
Since then, a number of house churches not sanctioned by the government have been forced to disband and hundreds of pastors and Christian worshipers arrested for "disturbing public order."
The party has also been restricting the work of foreign nongovernmental organizations, and in October, enacted the Revised Draft of Regulations on Religious Affairs. Among other restrictions, the new laws establish prohibitions on "organizing citizens to attend religious training, conferences and activities abroad," "preaching, organizing religious activities, and establishing religious institutions or religious sites at schools," and "providing religious services through the internet."
In an attempt to stifle the growth of Christianity, authorities have removed some 1,800 crosses from churches and beaten and arrested dissenting church members. The Communist Party has also cracked down on human rights lawyers: Since July 2015, over 260 lawyers and activists have been questioned by police, detained or charged with subverting state power, according to statistics from Amnesty International. Most were released shortly thereafter, according to the New York Times, but some are still in detention and awaiting trial on criminal charges.
Amid ongoing persecution, Beijing-based Christian human rights lawyer Zhang Kai wrote on his blog: "Seeking justice, promoting reconciliation and advancing rule of law are an historic mission, called for by God, that Christian lawyers must answer and cannot shirk. Confronted with cases of oppression of Christian belief, more Christian lawyers are willing to withstand the pressure and walk alongside those who suffer."