China: "Appalling" jail sentence for outspoken pastor makes mockery of religious freedoms

Following the sentencing after conviction of pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International said:

It speaks volumes that Wang Yi felt he needed to prepare a statement in advance refuting the court’s conclusions, together with any ‘confessions’ he might be forced to make.
Patrick Poon

“Today’s verdict makes a mockery of China's supposed religious freedoms. Wang Yi was merely practicing his religion and peacefully standing up for human rights in China.

“This nine-year sentence is appalling and unjust. Wang Yi is a prisoner of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released.

“It speaks volumes that Wang Yi felt he needed to prepare a statement in advance refuting the court’s conclusions, together with any ‘confessions’ he might be forced to make. In China, religious practitioners live under the permanent threat of politically motivated prosecution and conviction.”

Background

On the morning of 30 December 2019, pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church was sentenced to nine years at the Chengdu City Intermediate People’s Court He had been charged with “illegal business operation” and “inciting subversion of state power,” a catch-all charge often used against dissidents and activists who speak out against the government.

In early December 2018, police in Chengdu raided the premises of the Early Rain Covenant Church. About 100 members of the church, including Wang Yi, were taken away and questioned by the police in the following days. Some of them said they were asked to sign a document guaranteeing that they would not take part in the meetings of the church again.

Three days after the raid, on 12 December 2018, the church issued a written statement that pastor Wang Yi had prepared several months in advance, in which he expressed determination to defend religious freedom.

Wang wrote: “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.”

Founded in 2005, the Early Rain Covenant Church is one of the largest and most prominent “house churches” in China. The leaders and members of the church did not want to register with the Religious Affairs Bureau or the “Three-Self Patriotic Association”, as Protestant churches are required to do in order to be recognized by the government. These churches are commonly referred to as “house churches” because they usually gather to worship in members’ homes. Local officials can bring criminal and administrative sanctions against practitioners who carry out activities outside of state-approved “patriotic religious associations”.

Many Catholics, Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners have been harassed or even imprisoned in the struggle to freely practice their religion or beliefs, but recent regulations and amendments have tightened the Chinese government’s grip on religious practice.

For example, since the amended “Regulation on Religious Affairs” came into force in 2018, “house churches” reported further crackdowns across the country, particularly in Henan, Zhejiang, Guangdong and Heilongjiang provinces. Authorities have removed crosses and Christian slogans from church buildings, confiscated or vandalized church properties, ordered churches to close and questioned church leaders and members.