10 Chinese house church leaders sentenced to prison & labor camps

WASHINGTON (BP)--Ten leaders of a Chinese house church have received years-long criminal detention and "re-education" labor camp sentences for their attempts to protest an attack against their facilities in mid-September, according to reports by the ChinaAid human rights organization.

The harshest punishments -- criminal detention sentences handed down Nov. 25 -- entail incarceration in a high-security prison where inmates often are mentally abused, starved and beaten, according to a spokeswoman for ChinaAid. Yang Rongli, wife of pastor Wang Xiaoguang of the Linfen House Church in the northeastern Chinese city of Linfen with more than 4 million people, received a seven-year sentence while her husband, Wang Xiaoquang, received three years. Three others also received criminal detentions.

In addition, five others received two-year sentences of re-education through labor Nov. 30. Re-education through labor is comparatively milder than criminal detention but involves despicable working conditions and other forms of abuse as well, the spokeswoman said.

ChinaAid President Bob Fu, after the Nov. 25 court proceedings, said, "To punish an innocent house church leader for seven years' imprisonment is the most serious sentence since 2004 when the senior Henan house church leader pastor Zhang Rongliang received a [sentence of] similar length.

"We strongly condemn these unjust sentences, which are based on trumpeted charges," Fu said. "This case clearly shows the serious deteriorating situation of religious persecution in China. We call upon the Obama administration and international community to speak up unequivocally its concern about this case," Fu said via a news release.

In a Dec. 1 news release after the Nov. 30 proceedings, Fu said, "To arbitrarily send five innocent citizens to labor camps is in direct violation against the international human rights covenants and norms the Chinese government has signed and even ratified.

"This case shows the Chinese government is determined to be on the wrong side of history by clenching its power with suppressing the basic freedom of religion and conscience for Chinese citizens. We call upon the international community to hold these rights abusers accountable."

Yang Rongli and Wang Xiaoquang and three others were convicted during a trial in Linfen, in China's Shanxi province, that commenced at 9 a.m. on Nov. 25 and concluded 13 hours later, at 10 p.m. Beijing time.

The couple has led the Linfen House Church for more than 30 years, fostering a 50,000-member network in Linfen and in house churches in surrounding villages.

Yang Rongli, the pastor's wife, was convicted on two charges: "illegally occupying farming land" and "disturbing transportation order by gathering masses," according to ChinaAid. A second woman from the church, Zhang Huamei, was sentenced to four years for the latter charge.

Wang Xiaoquang, the pastor, was convicted of the first charge, "illegally occupying farming land," as were two other men from the church, Cui Jiaxing, who received a four-and-a-half-year sentence, and Yang Xuan, who received a three-and-a-half-year sentence.

The five church members had been detained since Sept. 25 when they were traveling to Beijing to petition for justice after a Sept. 13 attack by local authorities against their church-owned facilities, according to ChinaAid.

The other five church members who were sentenced Nov. 30 were convicted in an administrative proceeding, not a court trial, on charges of "gathering people to disturb the public order" for their part in organizing a prayer rally the day after the attack, drawing a crowd estimated at 1,000, according to ChinaAid.

Receiving two-year sentences were four women -- Yang Caizhen, wife of Yang Xuan who was sentenced Nov. 25, Yang Hongzhen, Gao Qin (also known as Gao Fuqin) and Zhao Guoai -- and one man, Li Shuangping.

All 10 church leaders intend to appeal the sentences, ChinaAid stated.

Describing the Sept. 13 attack and its aftermath in Linfen, ChinaAid recounted that "the church was attacked by over 400 military police. 17 church buildings were destroyed and over 30 believers were seriously wounded during the unprecedented mob attack in the early morning of Sunday, September 13. Linfen House Church Christians continue to be monitored by Chinese military police, including neighboring Golden Lampstand Church (Jin Dongtai) in Linfen City."

Concerning the Nov. 25 court proceedings against the first five church members who received criminal detention sentences, ChinaAid stated, "The court's conduct throughout the trial clearly indicated the government had decided upon the verdict and prepared it in advance. There were only two 20-minute breaks for recess, and only four family members of the convicted prisoners were allowed to be present during the trial.

"Government prosecutors showed over 1,000 pages of so-called 'evidence materials' related to this case, but the defense lawyers were only allowed to review about 50 pages before the trial to prepare their defense," ChinaAid said.

"The six Christian rights defense lawyers, including renowned attorneys Li Fangping (Simon) and Zhang Kai (Kevin), presented a very clear and satisfactory defense of the innocence of the five church leaders. Three of the accused church leaders were seen in excellent spirit with clear mind, when the lawyers were presenting their case. Sister Yang Rongli and Pastor Wang Xiaoguang's son was able to briefly chat with his parents during one recess time near the bathroom outside the court room. Sister Yang and Pastor Wang encouraged their son to stand firm in his faith in Christ."

"I was shocked at the seriousness of the punishment," one of the lawyers, Li Fanping, told AFP news (Agence France-Presse).

"This shows that the government is intent on using the law as a tool to attack the church," the attorney said.

Reports of the Linfen sentences also have been carried by the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

ChinaAid has called for concerned Christians to protest the sentences of the 10 church leaders by contacting the country's ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong, by telephone at 202-495-2000; fax, 202-588-9760; or mail, 3505 International Place, NW, Washington, DC 20008.

For citizens of other countries, contact information for Chinese embassies can be located at www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zwjg/2490/.

In Linfen, ChinaAid listed the telephone number for the mayor's office at 357-209-1044 and the Public Security Bureau as 357-218-8317.

Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press.

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