China Aid, a Christian human rights organization based in the U.S., believes that Pastor Gu Yuese of Hangzhou's Chongyi Church, the largest government sanctioned church in China, has no chance to escape sentencing by the Communist Party for standing up against the crackdown on churches.
"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 China Aid, told The Christian Post in a phone interview on Thursday.
"All factors combined, I do not see any way that the Communist Party will let Pator Gu leave the prison without a criminal sentence," Fu added.
Gu was taken into custody and placed under "residential surveillance at a designated location" on Jan. 28, but was only formally charged on Feb. 6 on charges of embezzling funds, Fu told CP.
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.
Although authorities have arrested several Christian pastors of underground churches and Christian activists for protesting against the forced cross removals, Gu is the highest ranking government-sanctioned church official to be arrested since the cultural revolution in the 1960s.
Fu said that the pastor's arrest is "politically charged," and pointed out the irony that Gu had previously been considered almost as a "poster boy" by the government for religious freedom.
The China Aid president noted that Gu has built a large international following, especially in Hong Kong and other oversees church communities, with petitions supporting him gathering over 1,500 signatures by influential church leaders.
Voice of America and other sources have documented the large spate of arrests over the last few months, but pointed out that Gu's arrest has been especially surprising.
One church pastor in Hong Kong, who chose to remain anonymous, told VoA about Gu: "I met the man before. He seems to be honest and highly respected. A very good man, a very spiritual man. He had a lot of contacts throughout China, both at the house church Christians as well as the official church."
Fu suggested that what makes the case so significant is that now even those who sympathize with government-sanctioned churches are losing heart.
"It will shake the spirit of the government-sanctioned church leaders and the congregations throughout China. All these factors will have a ripple effect," Fu said.
He also revealed that the Chongyi congregation had received a written statement from Gu through his lawyers in the form of a Chinese New Year's greeting. In the letter, Gu encourages the congregation to be faithful and obey the word of the Lord, and said that true faith is tested by fire.
A number of other points in the letter are more propaganda by the Chinese authorities, Fu alleged, however, as the congregation is called not to protest against the arrest and crackdown on churches, and also to listen to the new government-sanctioned pastor sent to replace him.
Gu meanwhile has no hope of ever being reinstated at Chongyi, Fu predicted.
"According to the pattern of behavior of the Communist Party, there is no way that Pastor Gu will be reinstated — period," Fu said.
He added that Gu has already "been determined as disloyal" by the Communist Party and broken the "taboo" by speaking out against authorities over the forced cross removals issue.
As for the continued crackdown on Christians across China, Fu said that the growing number of believers, who now outnumber the Communist Party, is the main cause of concern for authorities.
Fu noted that the government has admitted in its own words in official documents that it is looking to "contain the overheated growth of Christianity."
While the exact number of Christians in China is difficult to estimate, a Pew Research Center study from 2011 suggested that there were 67 million Christians inside China at the time — though that number has risen.
"The top leadership is very increasingly worried about the rapid growth of Christian faith and their public presence, and their social influence," Fu continued.
"It is a political fear for the Communist Party, as the number of Christians in the country far outnumber the members of the Party," he added.