BEIJING (AP) — The pastor of a Christian church in central China was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Friday in what supporters say is a crackdown aimed at curbing fast-growing religious activity, his lawyer said.
Zhang Shaojie of the Nanle County Christian Church in Henan province was convicted of fraud and of gathering crowds to disturb public order, according to lawyer Yang Xingquan.
Zhang's church is sanctioned by the Communist government, which allows worship only in state-monitored groups, but has been involved in a dispute with local authorities over land for a new building.
China also has a large number of unsanctioned underground, or home, churches that have attracted millions of worshippers and have been targeted in repeated crackdowns.
By official estimates, China has 23 million Christians, but many believe the total exceeds 35 million if home churches are counted.
The ruling party is wary of religion as a possible rallying point to challenge its rule and uneasy about the fast spread of Christianity three decades after Beijing loosened social controls in pursuit of economic development.
In the eastern Zhejiang province, where Christianity has been particularly popular, local governments have been tearing down crosses of Christian churches, even if they have been officially sanctioned, on the grounds that they lack construction permits.
In Nanle, phone calls to the county court rang unanswered Friday. Yang said Zhang had told the court that he would appeal.
Zhang was detained last year after the land dispute, but the lawyer said he was targeted due to his popularity in a region that has seen rapid growth in the number of Christians.
"In the eyes of the authorities, Christianity is growing too fast there, and Pastor Zhang was too influential," Yang said.
Zhang was convicted of instigating years-old disputes involving his congregation members, even though the disputes with a dentist, an insurance business and a family planning office were long dismissed, Yang said.
The pastor also was accusing of swindling money, but the prosecutors failed to produce a key witness to testify, Yang said.
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.