BEIJING — The pastor of a Christian church in central China was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Friday in what supporters say is a crackdown aimed at curbing fast-growing religious activity, his lawyer said.
Zhang Shaojie of the Nanle County Christian Church in Henan province was convicted of fraud and of gathering crowds to disturb public order, according to lawyer Yang Xingquan.
Zhang's church is sanctioned by the Communist government, which allows worship only in state-monitored groups, but has been involved in a dispute with local authorities over land for a new building.
By official estimates, China has 23 million Christians. The country also has a large number of unsanctioned underground, or home, churches that have attracted millions of worshippers and have been targeted in repeated crackdowns. A report by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center said there were likely 67 million Christians in the country in 2010, including 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics.
The ruling party is wary of religion as a possible rallying point to challenge its rule and uneasy about the rapid spread of Christianity three decades after Beijing loosened social controls in pursuit of economic development.
In the eastern Zhejiang province, where Christianity has been particularly popular, local governments have been tearing down crosses on Christian churches, even if they have been officially sanctioned, on the grounds that they lack construction permits.
The crackdown on Christian churches could be an extension of an ongoing campaign to suppress the growth of civil society in the country, said Prof. Fenggang Yang, a sociologist and expert on religion in China at Purdue University.
The churches might have become a target because Chinese Christians, perhaps emboldened by the growth in the number of followers around them, are more likely to assert their rights, Yang said.
"In China, Christianity or Protestantism is different from other religions somehow. One is that they have local congregations, they gather together regularly, showing support for each other spiritually, but that could spill over into social action," Yang said.
"The increasing number of Christians, perhaps, gives Christians more confidence to resist human rights violations and civil rights violations. I think size does matter."
In Nanle, phone calls to the county court rang unanswered Friday. Yang, the lawyer, said Zhang had told the court that he would appeal.
Zhang was detained last year after the land dispute, but the lawyer said he was targeted due to his popularity in a region that has seen rapid growth in the number of Christians.
"In the eyes of the authorities, Christianity is growing too fast there, and Pastor Zhang was too influential," Yang said.
Zhang was convicted of instigating years-old disputes involving his congregation members, even though the disputes with a dentist, an insurance business and a family planning office were long dismissed, Yang said.
The pastor also was accusing of swindling money, but prosecutors failed to produce a key witness to testify, Yang said.
Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid, said the verdict against Zhang was "totally unacceptable."
"This case shows the Chinese government continues to cover up religious persecution with fabricated criminal charges against an innocent church leader," Fu said in an emailed statement.