ucanews.com reporters, Beijing
Updated: September 18, 2014 04:37 AM GMT
Pastor Zhang Shaojie in prison (Photo: China Aid)
On the afternoon of April 9, Nanle County was in lockdown. Police positioned red traffic cones across all major roads in and out of this small town in Henan province, checking every vehicle. In uniform and in plainclothes, they swarmed the town center.
The following morning, government officials occupied every seat in a small courtroom except for just two taken by the wife and daughter of Pastor Zhang Shaojie.
After the court delivered a guilty verdict for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order”, Pastor Zhang of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in July. His final appeal was then rejected late last month.
“This is the harshest sentence and persecution of a church official or pastor since the Cultural Revolution,” said Pastor Bob Fu, president of China Aid, which closely followed the case.
While media attention has focused on the hundreds of crosses removed and churches demolished in Zhejiang province, Henan province has quietly remained among the most difficult and dangerous Chinese provinces in which to be a Christian.
Last year, China Aid recorded 23 cases of persecution and abuse in Henan, more than in any other of China’s 31 provinces, municipalities and regions except Beijing where almost all abuse cases were related to the country’s largest house church, Shouwang. There was just one instance of persecution recorded in Zhejiang in 2013.
Situated in the center of China, Henan is home to some of the most densely populated Christian areas in the country, particularly in the south on the border with Hubei.
While the situation has deteriorated markedly in Zhejiang further southeast where authorities have demolished or removed crosses at more than 300 churches this year, injuring and detaining Christians in the process, in Henan the situation has also worsened. Only few have noticed.
“One of the things that is most notable when looking at Zhejiang and Henan is that in Zhejiang the actions taken by the government have mostly focused on the removal or demolition of religious symbols, usually crosses,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s China researcher, declining to be named. “In Henan, rather than targeting religious symbols or buildings, restrictions and arrests have been aimed at religious meetings or groups.”
Speculation surrounding previously lenient Zhejiang has focused on whether the province represents a test case by the central government, or an overzealous provincial authority. In Henan, Fu said, new, tougher measures are being used against people rather than Church property. The results are harsh and it remains unclear where, exactly, the orders are coming from.
Apart from having issued the most severe prison term against a Chinese pastor on recent record, Henan is also explicitly banning Christians from sharing the gospel with under-18s, an echo of a similarly harsh policy carried out against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
A local newspaper notice published in early September in Nanle County, Henan province, warns Christians that they are not allowed to preach to under-18s.
This month, authorities put up wall posters in Nanle County and printed adverts in the local newspaper announcing the ban.
“[This] is a direct violation of China’s own law and constitution,” said Fu.
Few Christian cases have irritated Chinese authorities as much as Nanle Church. Following a long-running land dispute with local authorities, Pastor Zhang and members of his congregation headed for Beijing to complain to the central government in November.
In a bid to increase their chances of success, the group split up for the 500-kilometer journey north.
Many were apprehended by police en route. Others made it, but ultimately were tricked into returning to Nanle where they -- including Pastor Zhang -- were arrested.
Prosecutors eventually freed most of them. But in a case that sources say has set new legal lows even for China, one female member of the congregation, Li Cairen, remains in a secret “black jail”.
As the case against Pastor Zhang played out in the Nanle courtroom earlier this year, Li became the key witness: prosecutors claimed she accused Pastor Zhang although she has never appeared in court.
“This is why the authorities are so afraid to let her be released for cross-examination during the court trial and prosecution,” said Fu. “Of course, so many other procedures were conducted illegally.”
Last Tuesday, a Nanle judge also sentenced Pastor Zhang’s daughter Zhang Cuijian to 18 months behind bars on the same charges while co-defendant Zhao Junling received a suspended sentence: if he fails to toe the line over the next two years, he will be imprisoned for one year.
During their trial, the judge started proceedings a day early meaning Zhang’s lawyers Li Baiguang and Liu Peifu were not present in the courtroom as prosecutors read out evidence. Li declined to comment on the case.
Zhang’s husband, Jia Limin, said that there would be an appeal in what is likely to be a last stand by the church -- the building has already been scheduled for demolition by local authorities.
“I’m worried our future life and our religious beliefs will be affected,” he said by telephone from Nanle after the verdict against his wife. “Since late last year, the government has warned us not to have religious services, and it is going to issue licenses. Without the license, our church cannot open for a service.”