A Christian pastor questioned authorities in eastern China on why churches were being forced to remove crosses from their rooftops. Now his lawyer said that the government has sentenced him to one year in prison for raising that issue.
According to Didi Tang of the Associated Press, Pastor Huang Yizi would be the first person jailed for opposing the intense campaign carried out by the government in Zhejiang province to remove crosses from churches.
"Authorities in the province tore down about 400 rooftop crosses last year, saying they violated the building code," Tang wrote. "Churchgoers and religious rights advocates say the Christian faith is being targeted because its rapid growth unnerves the ruling Communist Party."
Huang's lawyer, Zhang Kai, told the Associated Press via telephone that his client was found "guilty of gathering crowds to disrupt social order." A court in the city of Pingyang handed down the sentence after a six-hour trial.
"Huang, an outspoken pastor, was taken away by police last summer after he brought some parishioners to a local government building to demand answers about a July clash in which security personnel armed with sticks attacked congregation members who had been keeping a night vigil over the cross atop their sanctuary," Tang wrote.
Tang added that the pastor also urged local church leaders to put back the crosses removed by the government. Although the court rejected his defense, Zhang argued that authorities violated the law by removing the crosses by force instead of through proper legal procedures.
The Associated Press reported that Zhang defended Huang's activism, arguing that the pastor did not disrupt social order and played a mediating role. However, the charge that placed Huang in jail "stemmed largely from the gathering in front of the government building."
According to Tom Phillips of The Telegraph, activists said that at least 400 churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang have faced partial or total demolitions. However, Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu, the deputy chairman of the Communist Party-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, claimed that Beijing issued an "internal order" halting demolition of both churches and their crosses.
"Communist Party officials claimed their one-year campaign was aimed at all 'illegal structures' and not just Christian churches," Phillips wrote.
Zhang Mingxuan, the head of the Chinese House Church Alliance, told Phillips that he was unaware of any official orders to halt the campaign. However, he welcomed such a move.
"There are many people who believe in God in China," Mingxuan said. "If they allow the demolitions to continue, it will cause conflict between these people and the country. If they continue demolishing, it will just make believers not trust the government, which is not good for the stability of regime."