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China court releases Christian protesters of church demolitions

The reprieves were issued in return for guilty pleas, says aid group
China court releases Christian protesters of church demolitions
Published: March 27, 2015 08:05 AM GMT
Updated: March 26, 2015 09:13 PM GMT

A Chinese court on Wednesday released eight Christians on reprieve after all pleaded guilty to illegally gathering a crowd in a failed attempt last year to prevent authorities from demolishing the Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou.

Those freed included Zhao Rendi, a pastor, who received a three-year prison sentence with a four-year reprieve who was mobbed by supporters as he left the court on bail.

Church elder Guo Yunhua, a Sanjiang Church elder, and the six other Christians found guilty were given sentences ranging from a few months to a year, with reprieves of several months.

“Thank the Lord! [Pastor] Zhao’s brothers who opposed the demolition of Sanjiang Church were released in court this afternoon,” Pastor Zhong Lin of Chengdu wrote on social media site Weibo, one of the few public references on the verdict inside China.

China’s shackled media has so far failed to report on the outcome of a case that has angered worshippers in Wenzhou, dubbed ‘Jerusalem of the East” due to the city’s more than one million Christians.

The court’s verdict appeared to be a compromise by local authorities keen not to further incite Christians after the provincial government removed more than 400 crosses and demolished at least 35 churches across Zhejiang from the end of 2013.

China Aid, a US-based Christian rights group that has followed the campaign closely, said defendants were thought to have been pressured into admitting their guilt before being released.

“All eight people pled guilty,” an unnamed worshipper present in the courtroom told China Aid.

The group were among hundreds of Christians who slept on site for weeks last Spring in a bid to stop authorities tearing down the church, which cost local Christians nearly US$5 million to build a year earlier.

Authorities bulldozed the structure after saying it was five times larger than the approved size, a common issue across China that Christians say has been used as a pretext to demolish churches and curb the rapid spread of Christianity in Zhejiang.

Following the reported end of the campaign at the end of last year, courts have started to hear cases of Christians who tried to block authorities from destroying churches in the province.

On Tuesday, a different court in Wenzhou sentenced Protestant Pastor Huang Yizi to one year in prison for trying to block the removal of a cross in Pingyang County in July last year.

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