Pastor Wang Yi, head of one of China’s largest unregistered churches, has been sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of subversion of power and illegal business operations amid an uptick in religious persecution in China.
The pastor of the 5,000-member Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, was sentenced Monday, according to a statement from the Intermediate People's Court of Chengdu Municipality.
As part of his sentence, the pastor will be deprived of his political rights for three years and $7,200 (50,000 renminbi) of his personal assets will be seized, according to the statement.
A Facebook post from a group affiliated with the church said the embattled congregation praised God for the “faithful witness of our brother in Christ, whose reward is now great in Heaven.”
“May the Lord use pastor Wang Yi’s imprisonment to draw many to Himself and to bring glory to His name,” noted the post. “‘For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.’ (2 Cor. 4:11).”
Early Rain Covenant Church was first raided during a Sunday evening service in December 2018 after authorities claimed it violated religious regulations because it was not registered with the government. Wang was detained along with his wife, Jiang Rong, and more than 100 members of his congregation.
China’s Communist Party requires that Protestants worship only in churches recognized and regulated by the officially sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
Authorities ransacked and sealed the church’s properties, including offices, a kindergarten, a seminary, and a Bible college, and searched the homes of many of its members. Police also forced church members to sign a pledge not to attend the church again, and around half of the church's original membership remain under close surveillance by police.
Most of Early Rain's congregants were eventually released after a period of days or months, including Jiang. However, in November, a Chinese court sentenced another church leader, Qin Defu, to four years in prison for the charge of illegal business operations.
The New York Times notes that Wang had become known for taking high-profile positions on politically sensitive issues, including forced abortions and the massacre that crushed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.
A lawyer by training and well-known blogger, Wang released a letter ahead of his arrest expressing hope that God would use him to “tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.”
“Regardless of what crime the government charges me with, whatever filth they fling at me, as long as this charge is related to my faith, my writings, my comments, and my teachings, it is merely a lie and temptation of demons,” he wrote in the letter titled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience.” “I categorically deny it. I will serve my sentence, but I will not serve the law. I will be executed, but I will not plead guilty.”
Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of the human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide, condemned China's imprisonment of the pastor, saying he has been "convicted on baseless criminal charges simply for standing up for his beliefs. We call on the Chinese authorities to drop the charges against Pastor Wang and to release him and all remaining members of Early Rain Church from detention.”
Wang’s sentencing was widely condemned by human rights advocates. Patrick Poon, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said the verdict “makes a mockery of China's supposed religious freedoms.”
“Wang Yi was merely practicing his religion and peacefully standing up for human rights in China,” he wrote. “This nine-year sentence is appalling and unjust. Wang Yi is a prisoner of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released.
“It speaks volumes that Wang Yi felt he needed to prepare a statement in advance refuting the court’s conclusions, together with any ‘confessions’ he might be forced to make. In China, religious practitioners live under the permanent threat of politically motivated prosecution and conviction.”
Bob Fu, president of the Christian nonprofit organization China Aid, told the South China Morning Post that Wang’s sentence was among the heaviest received by house church leaders in recent years.
“I think the regime is really afraid of Wang’s national and international impact, especially the growing influence of the reformed evangelical movement he was leading nationwide,” Fu said.
On Twitter, Fu called on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump to “condemn” and “take immediate actions for this barbaric act” by China’s Communist regime.
In his letter, Wang stressed that those who persecute him "will one day be locked up by angels."
“Those who interrogate me will finally be questioned and judged by Christ," he wrote. "When I think of this, the Lord fills me with a natural compassion and grief toward those who are attempting to and actively imprisoning me. Pray that the Lord would use me, that He would grant me patience and wisdom, that I might take the Gospel to them.”
Wang said that while Communist authorities have the power to separate him from his wife and children, “ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family,” they cannot force him to “renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life; and no one can raise me from the dead.”
“Jesus is the Christ, son of the eternal, living God. He died for sinners and rose to life for us,” the pastor wrote. “He is my king and the king of the whole earth yesterday, today, and forever. I am his servant, and I am imprisoned because of this. I will resist in meekness those who resist God, and I will joyfully violate all laws that violate God’s laws.”
In recent years, authorities have carried out a crackdown on all religious institutions, including bulldozing churches and removing rooftop crosses.
China ranks as the 27th worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List. Open Doors has expressed concern that the religious affairs in China now “lies with the Communist Party.”