A court in China’s Hubei province has sentenced a female Christian pastor to eight years in prison on charges of “fraud for preaching the Gospel” after her house church refused to join the state-controlled body that regulates Protestant churches, according to reports.
The Ezhou Echeng District People’s Court sentenced Pastor Hao Zhiwei of Egangqiao Church in Ezhou city to eight years in prison earlier this month, UCA News reported.
The 51-year-old pastor had been charged with fraud for preaching the Gospel and receiving donations from church members without approval from the state-run Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches and the Christian Council, her lawyer, Si Weijiang, was quoted as saying.
The lawyer added that Hao, who was arrested in July 2019, is the first pastor of a house church in the country who has been implicated in a fraud case, and added that she will appeal her sentencing, watchdog group Church in Chains said.
Hao’s church building had been demolished in August 2019 and was facing ongoing persecution, the group said, adding that after the pastor’s arrest, the authorities arrested several more house church pastors on the same charge, including Elder Zhang Chunlei of Guiyang Renai Reformed Church and Elders Hao Ming and Wu Jiannan of Deyang Early Rain Qingcaodi Church.
The Chinese Communist Party uses the new Regulation on Religious Affairs, which took effect in 2018, to persecute house churches in various ways, Elder Li Yingqiang of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church wrote in an article last November.
Those ways include "Sinicization," or seeking to align Christianity to China’s culture, religious and political ideology; “removing crosses, sealing up and demolishing church buildings; and banning church offerings.”
“Other charges include: ‘illegal business operations,’ ‘inciting subversion of state power,’ ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’ and so on. These charges are thorns on loyal preacher’s head and God’s crown for His loyal servants,” Li added.
Pastor Hao’s youngest son, Moses, who goes to a middle school, suffers from severe depression, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern said.
“Her husband passed away a few years ago, and her oldest son started college in 2020, so he can no longer take care of his younger brother. Moses dropped out this semester and began locking himself in a room. He refuses to interact with people and only has one meal per day,” ICC said.
Pastor Hao’s health is deteriorating in prison and she has lost a significant amount of weight, the group added. “After being detained for more than two years, she has developed acute pancreatitis four times and was sent to the emergency room. She nearly lost her life.”
Hao has “strong faith that she can be released without charge.”
With Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, many have expressed outrage about China’s treatment of religious minority communities. While China is being accused of genocide for its detainment of Uyghur and other ethnic Muslims in western China, human rights activists have voiced concern for years about the Chinese government’s yearslong crackdown on unregistered churches and house church movements.
Open Doors USA, a watchdog organization that monitors persecution in over 60 countries, warns that the monitoring of unregistered house churches in China increased over the last year as more house churches have experienced “harassment and obstruction once their activities have been discovered.”
Open Doors warns that many unregistered churches have been “forced to split up into small groups and gather in different locations, keeping a low-profile so as not to be detected by the sub-district officer or neighborhood committee.”