A Chinese woman from the western Xinjiang region has been sentenced to three years in prison for holding a Bible study, reportedly because she was convicted of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order."
China Aid, which reports on human rights and persecution abuses in the world's most populous nation, said on Sunday that Ma Huichao was taken by police along with four other Christians when they were accused by Communist Party authorities of meeting for the Bible study without government approval.
Her lawyer was apparently not allowed to plead innocent on her behalf, and Ma's three-year prison sentence began on Friday.
China has been cracking down on non-government sanctioned underground churches and Christian gatherings, and has arrested hundreds of pastors and Christian worshipers in the past few years on similar charges of "disturbing public order."
The Revised Draft of Regulations on Religious Affairs, which went into effect in October 2016, further established prohibitions on "organizing citizens to attend religious training, conferences and activities abroad," "preaching, organizing religious activities, and establishing religious institutions or religious sites at schools," and "providing religious services through the internet."
The government has also been demolishing rooftop crosses on churches, claiming they are in violation of building codes. Christian advocacy groups, however, have said that its an effort by the Communist regime to suppress the growth of Christianity in the country.
"The government wants to control everything, even the smallest aspects. One characteristic of this draft is the empowerment of local government bodies all the way down to the communities," one pastor, identified as Zhou, told China Aid in September.
"This revision will further reduce the possibility of loosening religious control in China. It is becoming impossible."
Several Christians were arrested throughout October and November and accused of belonging to "evil cults," though the accused have denied the charges.
China Aid said the exact number of people arrested is not yet known, though some have been released.
"Tu Yan, a woman who began attending churches in Yunnan after she moved there for work, was returning home from a Christian gathering on Oct. 22, when she was apprehended on suspicion of 'using a cult organization to undermine the implementation of the law,'" the persecution watchdog group explained.
"A month later, she was arrested for the same charge. Authorities also accused her of being the backbone of two so-called 'evil cults' and organizing three meetings on behalf of these institutions. In an interview, her father denied her involvement in any cult activities."
Christian camp leaders have also been detained and accused of "brainwashing" children by teaching them about Christianity, such as in the case of two teachers in Xinjiang back in August.
"Both women were accused of indoctrinating minors with superstitious beliefs. Chinese law forbids religious teaching to anyone under the age of 18, believing matters of faith to be dangerous brainwashing from which children must be protected," China Aid explained at the time.