Christmas in North China
LINFEN, X'mas, 2009 - Christians in north China are facing a Christmas of fear after 10 local religious leaders were jailed in recent weeks and their new church shut down amid a crackdown on unauthorised worship.
Five of the church leaders were given prison terms of up to seven-years by a Linfen court, while the others were sentenced without trial to labour camps for two years, their lawyer said.
Their crimes? "Illegally occupying farm land" and "disturbing transportation through a mass gathering".
"The authorities are clearly sending a message to the Christians," lawyer Li Fanping, who defended the church leaders at their trial last month, told AFP. He expressed shock at the severity of the punishment for minor offences.
"They've convicted them of these specific crimes. As Christmas is coming, a lot of Christians will want to gather to worship, but the authorities have made it clear what can happen if they gather."
China officially allows freedom of religion, but in practice, the ruling Communist Party restricts independent worship by forcing groups to register with the government.
About 15 million Protestants and five million Catholics worship at official churches, according to official data.
But more than 50 million others are believed to pray at "underground" or "house" churches, which refuse to submit to government regulation.
At the heart of the Linfen case is the giant Golden Lamp Church, built by Yang Rongli and her husband Pastor Wang Xiaoguang through donations.
The church is capable of accommodating thousands of worshippers at a time and could serve the religious needs of many of the up to 60,000 Christians in the area.
Bob Fu, head of the US-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said the church was leading a nationwide Christian revival through its evangelical work and social services which had brought it to the brink of official legitimacy.
"Local officials at the village level have been tolerating and even helping the Linfen church," he said, when asked how the leaders had been able to build the towering structure.
But it appears that more senior religious authorities began getting nervous at the size of the unregistered church, and feared its ability to organise ordinary people into what could become mass anti-government movements, Fu said.
The completion of the building in December 2008 sparked a crackdown on unregistered churches, with police in mid-September raiding numerous places of worship throughout Linfen linked to the Golden Lamp, locals said.
The worst clampdown appeared to be in nearby Fushan county, where up to 400 police and hired thugs levelled a makeshift church in a farming community, attacking worshippers and seriously injuring several people, they said.
"None of the followers fought back, they just silently protested the action by the authorities and took the beatings," one Christian told AFP by phone, asking to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the case.
"Right now it is too dangerous to meet outsiders -- the police are watching us and the phones are not safe to use," said the man, who is related to one of people who was jailed.
Other church followers refused AFP requests for interviews out of fear of retribution by police.
Following the crackdown, Yang, 51, entered talks with the government for up to two million yuan (293,000 dollars) in compensation for the injured and launched a drive to petition central authorities in Beijing, lawyer Li said.
That is when police began arresting the church leaders, he said.
The government's insistence that the church was built on agricultural lands is central to the charges on which Yang and Wang were convicted, Li said.
The Linfen government, police and courts all refused to comment on the case when contacted repeatedly by AFP.
When AFP visited the area, an armoured personnel carrier and a police car were stationed outside the Golden Lamp Church -- part of a larger security presence that has been in place since the September crackdown.
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