The Trump administration has condemned the imprisonment of Wang Yi, pastor of one of China's best-known unregistered house churches, calling it another example of “Beijing's intensification of repression of Chinese Christians and members of other religious groups.”
Wang, founder of the 5,000-member Early Rain Covenant Church in China's southwestern city of Chengdu, was among dozens of the church's members and leaders detained by police in December 2018, most of whom were subsequently released.
On Monday, the pastor was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of inciting subversion of state power, part of Beijing's crackdown on unregistered religious groups.
"We are alarmed that Pastor Wang Yi ... was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison in connection to his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. We call for his immediate and unconditional release," U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
"This is yet another example of Beijing's intensification of repression of Chinese Christians and members of other religious groups," the statement added. "We continue to call on Beijing to uphold its international commitments and promises made in its own constitution to promote religious freedom for all."
On Twitter, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Wang’s release: “I am alarmed that Pastor Wang Yi, leader of Chengdu’s Early Rain house church, was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison on trumped-up charges. Beijing must release him and end its intensifying repression of Christians and members of all other religious groups.”
China has seen an uptick in religious persecution under the administration of President Xi Jinping who took office six years ago. In recent years, the government has demolished crosses, cracked down on house churches, arrested pastors, and put officially-recognized churches under tighter control.
Chinese law requires that places of worship register and submit to government oversight, but some have declined to register, and are thus deemed illegal. These churches are known as "house" or "underground" churches.
Wang had openly criticized Xi and refused to comply with Chinese government requirements to register with China’s Religious Affairs Bureau. In 2006, he traveled to Washington to meet with then-President George W. Bush, asking for his support in their fight for religious freedom.
Ahead of his arrest, Wang published a letter condemning the “evil” Communist Party for its continued persecution of Christians.
He expressed 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.”
Another leader at the church, Qin Defu, was sentenced to four years in prison for “illegal business operations” in November.
Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, told Time magazine that the imprisonment of Wang and other religious leaders indicates China feels threatened by the spread of Christianity.
“Even in official churches, CCTV cameras and other surveillance equipment are installed in every church so that the state knows what the pastor or the priest might be talking about in their sermons,” Lam said.
There are about 116 million Protestant Christians in mainland China in 2020, compared to an estimated 90 million members in the Communist Party.
Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Time magazine that Wang’s sentence might be a warning to other leaders of underground churches.
“The government wants to force all churches to register with the officially-sanctioned church so that they can be completely under government control,” he said.
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.”