Less than a month after he was imprisoned for criticizing the Chinese government's crackdown on Christian churches, Pastor Gu "Joseph" Yuese wrote a letter to his congregation urging compliance, sparking fears his hand may have been forced.
As reported by The Gospel Herald, Chinese officials in the Zhejiang province arrested Gu, who pastors Chongyi Church, the largest government-sanctioned church in China, in late January for embezzlement.
However, the arrest occurred 10 days after authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang forcefully removed the pastor from his position, supposedly for speaking out against the government's ongoing crackdown against Christians in the country, including the forced removal of rooftop crosses, since early 2014.
According to China Aid President Bob Fu, Gu is the highest-ranked religious official to be taken into police custody since the Cultural Revolution.
On February 4, the pastor sent a letter to his church in the form of a Chinese New Year's greeting, calling on them to support the new senior pastor appointed by the government to replace him, according to China Aid. In addition, the pastor urges Christians to pray, rather than to coordinate protests or inquire after the situation.
"Some have said that they believe Gu was forced to write the letter," China Aid noted.
A translation of the message Gu sent to his followers reads:
"Brothers and sisters, please support Pastor Zhang Zhongcheng's work the same way you supported me. I believe that God can bless Pastor Zhang Zhongcheng by improving upon Chongyi Church, which is the Lord's church! May God be glorified and people profit!"
The letter adds: "I am doing well in here, enjoying the company of God and bathing in his blessings. I am tired, but, in here, I have more time to pray for you and for the guidance of God in the years to come."
The pastor urges congregants to trust the government's process, explaining that the investigation is for his "own benefit."
"Please have faith in our government and judicial department. They will do their work rigorously, abiding by the laws and unearthing the truth with impartiality, justice, and public transparency," the letter says.
"They will correct any mistakes, if any have been made, and guard against them if none were committed. Instead of assembling and inquiring, please pray!"
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.
The South China Morning Post notes that Gu's arrest is ironic, as he was "elevated as almost a poster boy in the government-established system for showcasing religious freedom in China," frequently meeting with foreign guests and appearing at government-organized ceremonies.
"His arrest marks a major escalation in the crackdown against those who oppose the forced demolition of crosses," Fu told the news outlet. "He will be the highest-ranking national church leader arrested since the Cultural Revolution."