Zhang Chongzhu, the pastor of the state-run Pyongyang Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church in Zhejiang province, China, was released on Monday after eight months in prison for protesting against the government's forced demolition of Christian crosses and churches.
China Aid reported that Zhang has frequently spoken out against the ongoing persecution of Christians in the country, with hundreds of rooftop crosses and churches being taken down by bulldozing crews at the orders of Communist Party officials. The government has argued that it is targeting places that violate its building codes, deeming rooftop crosses unsafe.
Zhang was reportedly taken into custody on Sept. 8, 2015, and charged with "stealing, spying, buying, or illegally providing state secrets or intelligence to entities outside China," which is a common accusation against those who challenge the Communist regime.
Some churchgoers also suggested that Zhang might have been singled out and arrested for meeting with a U.S. diplomat in Shanghai last year.
Although China allows state-run churches to operate, it has not spared even the highest ranking pastors from prison if they speak out against the Communist Party.
Earlier this year, authorities took into custody Pastor Gu Yuese of Hangzhou's Chongyi Church, the largest government sanctioned church in China. While Gu was formally charged with embezzling church funds, China Aid and other persecution watchdog groups said the actions against him have more to do with his protest against the demolition campaign.
Gu later sent a letter to his congregation urging them to comply with the government's demands, though China Aid said that some suspect Gu might have been forced by government authorities to write the statement.
"It will shake the spirit of the government-sanctioned church leaders and the congregations throughout China. All these factors will have a ripple effect," China Aid President Bob Fu told The Christian Post back in February about the arrest.
He added that the reason for the ongoing crackdown comes down to the rising Christian population, which the government is afraid of.
"The top leadership is increasingly worried about the rapid growth of the Christian faith and their public presence, and their social influence," Fu said. "It is a political fear for the Communist Party, as the number of Christians in the country far outnumber the members of the party."