A prominent Chinese pastor who was imprisoned last year for opposing a government crackdown on public displays of Christianity has been released, activists have confirmed.
Pastor Huang Yizi, from the eastern province of Zhejiang, was the first person jailed for opposing the intense campaign carried out by the government in Zhejiang province to remove crosses from churches.
He was formally placed under criminal detention on 12 September 2015 for "endangering national security" and was accused of "stealing, spying on, buying or illegally providing state secrets for institutions and people outside the country" and was not allowed access to a lawyer or to speak with his family.
Human rights organization China Aid received confirmation on Friday that Huang had been freed, just under five months after his arrest.
Bob Fu, founder and president of China Aid, told Christian Today that the pastor looks "pale and thin", and that Huang has said he was under huge pressure and threat before his release.
"We are glad pastor Huang is released home for Chinese New Year after being arbitrarily detained for five months in a black jail," Fu told CT.
As reported by The Gospel Herald, in July 2014, police forcefully attempted to remove a cross from the roof of Sjuitou Salvation Church, resulting in a bloody clash with members who were guarding the building. The cross was eventually removed from the church building, but not before multiple congregants were injured due to excessive police force.
In turn, Huang, who pastors Fengwo Church in Wenzhou, gathered a crowd from his congregation at a government building to demand answers about the incident. He also urged other church leaders to put back crosses which had been removed from their buildings, referring to the demolition campaign as an example of "severe persecution" and an "insult" to China's Christians.
Last March, Huang's lawyer, Zhang Kai, told the Associated Press via telephone that his client was found "guilty of gathering crowds to disrupt social order" and that 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.
Over the past two years, authorities in Zhejiang have sought to dismantle crosses and religious structures on top of churches, angering the local religious population. Over a thousand crosses have been removed from churches in the area, and a number of church buildings entirely demolished.
While authorities in the region claim the crosses are being removed because they violate regulations against illegal structures, rights groups argue that destroying crosses restricts Christianity and religious freedoms.
According to the New York Times, the targeting of believers in Zhejiang, one of China's wealthiest provinces, highlights the Chinese leadership's discomfort with the growing allure of Christianity, whose followers are said to rival in number the 86 million members of the Communist Party.
Speaking to CT, Fu argued that both Huang's previous one year criminal sentence and the past five months detention are "absolutely part of political revenge against pastor Huang's public opposition against the barbaric forced demolition of crosses and his effort for organizing true Gospel mission independent of the government controlled religious body, the TSPM [Three Self Patriotic Movement]."
He added, "I call upon the Chinese higher authorities to hold accountable of those abusers of power (in its arbitrary nature of pastor Huang's detention) in Zhejiang and restore justice to pastor Huang."