Independent house church leader Pastor Hao Zhiwei has been sentenced to eight years on ‘fraud’ charges by the authorities in Ezhou in China’s central Hubei province. At least ten leaders and co-workers from four unregistered Protestant churches were arrested in 2021 and are facing similar charges.
Pastor Hao, a widowed mother to a young son, had been held in pre-trial detention since 31 July 2019, prior to her trial on 11 February 2022. According to China Aid, she was criminally detained for preaching and collecting offerings without the approval of state-sanctioned associations. This ‘fraud’ charge is widely understood as targeting leaders of house churches, which are independent and not registered with the government or affiliated with the state-sanctioned church.
Pastor Hao’s church had been repeatedly raided by local authorities prior to her detention, and members of the congregation had been brutally attacked and detained. In November 2021, her lawyer revealed that during her prolonged detention, Pastor Hao’s health had deteriorated and her younger son Moses, who also lost his father to cancer in 2018, had developed depression and dropped out of school. The pastor will appeal her conviction and sentence.
In 2021, the Chinese authorities arrested at least ten leaders and co-workers from four unregistered Protestant churches and charged them with ‘fraud’: Elder Zhang Chunlei (Love Reformed Church, Guiyang, Guizhou province); Pastor Wang Xiaoguang, his wife Yang Rongli and their five co-workers (Golden Lampstand Church, Linfen, Shanxi province); Hao Ming (Early Rain Covenant Church, Chengdu, Sichuan province) and Wu Jiannan (Green Pastures Church, Deyang, Sichuan province). Elder Zhang has since been charged with an additional charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power’.
In each case, the authorities started by detaining and interrogating a large number of church members, some of whom were later released without charge or on bail.
Li Yingqiang, an elder of Early Rain Covenant Church, commented that targeting common church practice of collecting offerings and accusing church ministers of ‘fraud’ is a “new tactic” that the Chinese authorities have adopted to persecute Christian churches. He suggested that the Chinese Communist Party’s rationale is that “as long as a church’s financial resources are cut off, it will not survive as an organisation”.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “Pastor Hao Zhiwei’s sentencing once again highlights the increasingly dire situation for unregistered house churches and their leaders in China today. We call for her immediate and unconditional release, and that of all the others who have been detained for peaceful religious activities. We continue to urge the Chinese Communist Party to end its crackdown on Christian churches and other religious groups across China. It is vital that states raise these concerns with China at every opportunity.”