A Christian pastor from a church in Central China has been sentenced to 12 years in jail on charges of 'gathering crowds to disturb public order,' and fraud. Zhang Shaojie, who pastors the Nanle County Christian Church, was found guilty last week, in what supporters are calling a government crack-down against Christians.
Shaojie and 23 members of his church were taken into custody last year after a land dispute with local authorities. According the the Associated Press, the church, belonging under the umbrella of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches, is sanctioned by the government, but things went bad when they got into a dispute with the Government over a place to erect a new building.
Shaojie's lawyer says that the pastor was "targeted by authorities who are trying to control the fast growth of churches."
"I strongly believe Zhang Shaojie is innocent," said Liu Weiguo, Shaojie's lawyer. "This is a total set-up by the local government."
The Chinese Constitution allows the right to freedom of religious belief, but that right is limited to worship within state-sanctioned religious bodies.
In 1949, the Communist Party came to power and there were just one million Christians in China. Professor Fenggang Yang of Purdue University has estimated that there will be 247 million Christians in China by 2030 - more than in the United States, making China the largest Christian nation. By official estimates, China has around 23 million christians in the country today.
Yang believes that the rapid growth of the body may be at the center of some of the issues with the government.
The churches might have become a target because Chinese Christians, perhaps emboldened by the growth in the number of followers around them, are more likely to assert their rights, Yang said.
"The increasing number of Christians, perhaps, gives Christians more confidence to resist human rights violations and civil rights violations. I think size does matter," he said.
Pastor Shoajie's arrest is not the first sign of an attack on Christianity in the country. In the past other Christians and Church congregations have felt the sting of the government crackdown.
The pastor also was accused of swindling money, but prosecutors failed to produce a key witness to testify, Yang said of the case against Shaoji.
Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid, said the verdict against Zhang was "totally unacceptable."
"This case shows the Chinese government continues to cover up religious persecution with fabricated criminal charges against an innocent church leader," Fu said in an emailed statement to the AP.