BEIJING -- China has sentenced a prominent pastor who operated outside the Communist Party-recognized Protestant organization to nine years in prison for subversion.
Wang Yi had led the Early Rain Covenant Church and was arrested a year ago during China's ongoing crackdown on all unauthorized religious groups in the country. The government requires Protestants worship only in churches recognized and regulated by the party-led Three-Self Patriotic Movement. A separate body regulates the Catholic church in China, which has no formal relations with the Vatican.
The People's Intermediate Court in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Monday convicted Wang of incitement to subvert state power and involvement in illegal business operations and said he was fined and his personal assets were seized.
Si Weijiang, a lawyer hired by Wang's mother, said the charge of illegal business operations involved printing of books about Christian culture.
“It is actually about the freedom of publication and there has been no social harm," Si said in a phone interview.
The charge of incitement “involves preaching and is an issue of speech, which has also inflicted no social harm,” he said.
Even within the narrow confines it has established, China's officially atheist ruling party has been seeking to rein in religious expression, including removing crosses from official and unofficial churches.
More widely, the party has demolished places of worship, barred Tibetan children from Buddhist religious studies and incarcerated more than a million members of Islamic ethnic minorities in what are termed “reeducation centers.”
Early Rain is believed to have had several hundred members who met in different locations around Chengdu, the sprawling capital of Sichuan province. Many of those were taken from their homes overnight in lightning raids, including Wang's wife, Jiang Rong, who was later released on bail.
Wang had been critical of Communist Party leader and state President Xi Jinping and made a point of holding a prayer service on June 4 each year to commemorate the 1989 bloody assault on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Beijing's hard line on religion has underscored its contrast with other culturally Chinese societies, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, where most follow Buddhism and traditional Chinese beliefs, but where Christianity and other religions also thrive.
At least two members of Early Rain fled to Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that China claims as its own territory.
Wang's sentencing was condemned by Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon as making a “mockery of China's supposed religious freedoms."
“Wang Yi was merely practicing his religion and peacefully standing up for human rights in China," Poon said in an emailed statement. “Wang Yi is a prisoner of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released."