A Chinese court sentenced the pastor and leaders of a 50,000-member megachurch in northeastern China to prison, rights groups reported Thursday.
Pastor Wang Xiaoguang of Linfen Fushan Church in Linfen, northern Shanxi province received three years for "illegal land occupation" and his wife Yang Rongli received a maximum of seven years for "illegal land occupation" and "assembling a crowd to disrupt public order," according to ChinaAid Association. Other church leaders received three- to four-and-a-half-year prison sentences.
The sentences are among the most severe for house church leaders in recent years.
"To punish an innocent house church leader with seven years imprisonment is the most serious sentence since 2004 when the senior Henan house church leader Pastor Zhang Rongliang received a similar length," said CAA President Bob Fu in a statement. "We strongly condemn these unjust sentences, which are based on trumped-up changes."
The trial was held at the People's Court of Raodu district, Linfen City on Wednesday and lasted over 12 hours. Only one family member for each of the accused church leaders was allowed to attend the court hearing. In total, only four family members – the son of Pastor Wang and Yang Rongli came for both parents – were at the trial for the five church leaders.
Moreover, the defense lawyers were only allowed to review 50 pages of the "evidence materials" related to the case before the trial. But during the trial, government prosecutors presented more than 1,000 pages of so-called evidence.
The five were convicted of "illegal land occupation" and "assembling a crowd to disrupt public order."
The trial came after a massive raid by police and hired security guards on Fushan Church in September. During the pre-dawn raid on Sept. 13, reportedly 400 people in police suits raided and destroyed buildings on the Good News Cloth Shoes Factory property, where the Fushan Church is located.
The raid was one of the worst crackdowns against a house church in the past decade, according to CAA.
Men tore at the building's foundation with shovels as bulldozers worked to level other buildings on the site. Church members sleeping at the construction site of the new church building were reportedly attacked with bricks and other objects, according to CAA. Several members were severely injured and were sent to the emergency room, and some members were unconscious.
Following the raid, Yang and other church officials attempted to travel to Beijing to protest the destruction of their church to the central government authorities. However, they were arrested and detained during their trip.
During Wednesday's trial, Yang and Pastor Wang encouraged their son to stand firm in his faith in Christ, according to CAA. The husband and wife had led the Fushan Church for more than 30 years.
"This case clearly shows the serious deteriorating situation of religious persecution in China," Fu said. "We call upon the Obama administration and international community to speak up unequivocally in its concern about this case."