China sentences pastor to 9 years in prison for ‘subverting state power’

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A court in China has sentenced a well-known pastor to 9 years in prison for the crime of subverting state power. Pastor Wang Yi was arrested last December along with his wife and 100 members of his church. Most were eventually released but Wang Yi’s wife was kept in jail for six months and now lives in seclusion watched constantly by government minders. Wang Yi may be a government target, in part, because he was well known within China even before his conversion to Christianity in 2005:

Before Wang Yi became a pastor, he was a respected intellectual and legal scholar, named one of the 50 “most influential public intellectuals” in China by state media Southern People Weekly in 2004. He converted to Christianity in 2005 and subsequently decided to dedicate his life to church ministry. The Early Rain Covenant Church he founded in 2008 stayed outside the state system which mandates that all religious institutions come under its control. It grew to 500-member strong and comprised a seminary, a primary school and a unit that supported families of political prisoners — all are deemed illegal by the Chinese authorities…

Wang’s imprisonment came as the ruling Communist party ordered religious leaders to reinterpret religious doctrine to bring it in line with its ideology and presses on with its campaign to “Sinicise” religion. Critics say China’s goal was to ensure that religious dogma fits its “core socialist values”, and its desire to develop “theology with Chinese characteristics” by making religion more compatible with the Communist Party’s ideology.

In 2016, the Chinese government began a crackdown on religious organizations that were not specifically approved by the communist party. Approval in this case doesn’t just mean that the communist party keeps an eye on churches but that it actively reviews sermons for censorship and can appoint government selected pastors. Here’s how the NY Times described it at the time:

Religion has blossomed in China despite the Communist Party’s efforts to control and sometimes suppress it, with hundreds of millions embracing the nation’s major faiths — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism — over the past few decades. But many Chinese worship outside the government’s official churches, mosques and temples, in unauthorized congregations that the party worries could challenge its authority…

Christianity is widely considered the fastest-growing faith; there are as many as 67 million adherents now, at least half of whom worship in unregistered churches that have proliferated across China, sometimes called underground or house churches…

“These regulations effectively push house churches into taking on an illegal character,” said Yang Xingquan, a lawyer who is one of the signatories of the public statement. “This is very clear.”

Many Christians contend that government-approved churches are tools of the state, as sermons are vetted to avoid contentious political and social issues and clergy are appointed by the party rather than congregants or, in the case of the Catholic Church, the Vatican.

Pastor Wang Yi not only ran one of the largest of these underground churches, he also irritated the government by refusing to avoid political issues in his sermons. For instance, he commemorated the Tiananmen Square pro-freedom protests. Yesterday, the church published a portion of a response from the pastor on Facebook.

I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, 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. 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…

Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family – the authorities are capable of doing all of these things. However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life; and no one can raise me from the dead.

In one of his sermons, delivered just about two months before his arrest, Pastor Wang Yi said the Chinese government would continue to test churches until it was convinced that Christians could not be threatened into abandoning their faith. “Chinese society does not yet believe that we truly believe in Jesus…God wants us to change the world to the degree that the whole world truly believes that we believe,” he said. He added, “As this government persecutes the church, may it encounter, through the testimony of the lives of us Christians, the most unyielding resistance and suffer the greatest defeat.”

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