Chinese Protestant 'House Church' Leader Released from Prison

One of three prominent house church leaders sentenced up to three years in prison last year for “leaking state secrets” was recently released, sources reported Tuesday.

Zhang Shengqi, who was detained in November 2003 and sentenced to one year in prison last August, recently returned to his home in eastern China's Shandong province, said Yin Weihong, a veteran Chinese democracy activist in the southeastern city of Wenzhou.

According to the Associated Press, a family member at Zhang's home contacted by phone confirmed he was back but said he had gone out.

The cases against Zhang and two other church leaders with whom he stood trial with last year—Liu Fenggang and Xu Yonghai—stemmed from their efforts to publicize the suppression of Christians in Hangzhou’s Xiaoshan District July 2003, in the course of which more than a dozen house churches were destroyed and at least 300 Christians were arrested, with some subjected to physical abuse.

Sources say Liu had released his report to overseas organizations after traveling to Hangzhou in July to learn more about the incident. When Liu returned to Hangzhou in October to carry out further research, Public Security officers from Xiaoshan District detained him, searched his home, and confiscated a number of items, including a computer belonging to Xu.

In the month that followed, authorities detained Xu and Zhang, who were both active members of Liu’s house church.

On Aug. 6, 2004, a Chinese court in the eastern city of Hangzhou found Liu, Xu, and Zhang guilty for “leaking state secrets” and sentenced the three church leaders to three-, two-, and one-year sentences, respectively.

Liu was also found guilty of passing on information about the destruction of unofficial churches outside Hangzhou in the 2003 crackdown.

According to sources, China stages such crackdowns to enforce its insistence that Christians worship only in government-controlled churches. Those who meet outside the official church are routinely harassed and fined, and sometimes sent to labor camps.

However, despite harassment, fines and the possibility of prison, millions of Christians continue to worship outside the Communist Party-controlled official church, in unauthorized assemblies, including private homes—often labeled as “house churches.”

Meanwhile, Chinese officials continually deny violating religious freedoms, saying detained activists are criminals who violated Chinese law and threatened national security.