As communist authorities in China continue to crackdown on churches in the southeastern Zhejiang Province, considered the heartland of Chinese Christianity, a court sentenced a Protestant pastor to 14 years in prison and his wife to 12 years, according to Chinese media.
Bao Guohua, a government-approved pastor, and his wife, Xing Wenxiang, were targeted for their efforts to defend their church against an order to remove its cross, just as authorities have taken down over 1,200 crosses from churches and other buildings for violating "planing" rules over the past two years.
The pastor and his wife, who were arrested last August, were convicted of corruption, financial crimes and gathering people to disturb social order, the Zhejiang Daily newspaper reported Friday, according to The New York Times.
The court has also fined Bao more than $15,000, and has ordered confiscation of another $92,000, the newspaper said.
The court has additionally handed suspended jail sentences to 10 members of Pastor Bao's Holy Love Christian church, who were allowed to walk free after the sentencing, according to Radio Free Asia.
On Jan. 28, authorities arrested and placed under "residential surveillance at a designated location" another pastor in the same province, Gu Yuese, of Chongyi Church, the largest government sanctioned church in China. He was formally charged on Feb. 6 for embezzling funds.
"I think the likely scenario to happen is that he will be indicted, and depending on his confession, and how cooperative he is, the length of sentence can be negotiated," Bob Fu, founder and president of the U.S.-based China Aid, told The Christian Post in an interview earlier this month. "All factors combined, I do not see any way that the Communist Party will let Pator Gu leave the prison without a criminal sentence," he added.
While Chinese authorities, led by the Communist Party, have claimed that Gu is being investigated for corruption, China Aid and other persecution watchdog groups have pointed out that Gu is being punished more so because of his opposition to the crackdown on churches in China, which includes the forced cross removal from hundreds of churches in several provinces.
In its recently released 2016 report, Human Rights Watch notes that China is facing several problems, documenting the arrests of various human rights defenders, including those who have stood up for freedom of religion.
It says government authorities led a campaign in 2015 demolishing church crosses and even entire churches. "In 2015, authorities continued their campaign to remove crosses from churches, and in some cases demolished entire churches in Zhejiang Province, considered the heartland of Chinese Christianity," the report states. "At least a hundred Christians have reportedly been briefly detained for resisting the demolitions since the start of the campaign in early 2014."
China is also planing to enforce a new policy requiring Roman Catholic officials to carry ID cards stating their religious affiliation or risk losing the right to preach.
UCA News, a Catholic news agency, reported that Buddhist monks are already being required to carry such ID cards, and by the end of the year the same will be expected of Catholic and Taoist priests.
The U.S.-based group International Christian Concern said it is "distressed to hear of the Nazi-like identification credentials for Christian leaders in China. Our concern is that this new requirement will force many churches and their leaders underground."
When China's communists came to power in 1949, they expelled Christian missionaries while allowing churches to function under the government's control. Chinese Christians faced severe persecution during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s under Mao, who saw religion as "poison."
Churches are now allowed to exist, or tolerated, but under tight control of the government.