Beijing, China - A court in northern China has sentenced five leaders of an unauthorized Protestant church to prison terms of up to seven years on charges including illegal assembly, rights groups reported Thursday.
The sentences are among the harshest in recent years for members of so-called "house churches" - congregations that refuse to register and accept the authority of the government's Religious Affairs Bureau.
Arrests stemmed from a Sept. 13 raid by police and hired security guards on sunrise services held in a dormitory building by the 50,000-member Linfen Fushan Church in Linfen, northern Shanxi province, rights groups and the advocacy Web site Boxun.com reported.
Those sentenced late Wednesday by the Linfen Intermediate Court included the church's pastor Wang Xiaoguang and his wife Yang Rongli, who both received the maximum sentence. Yang was apparently targeted for her efforts to petition local authorities on Wang's behalf, Boxun said. Others were given sentences of between three and four-and-a-half-years, it said.
The trial was called at the last minute and the court permitted only one family member of each defendant to attend, the reports said. Local authorities had previously refused to allow lawyers to meet with the accused.
The reports said the five were convicted on two charges: "illegal land occupation" and "assembling a crowd to disrupt public order." No other details were given. Monitoring groups frequently cite such charges as evidence of government harassment of nonofficial churches.
Yang had been detained the day after the raid while carrying a protest to the Shanxi provincial government offices in the capital of Taiyuan, reports said. Another 10 people were detained over the following days, although it was not immediately clear whether they had been released or would also face trial.
Calls to several departments of the Linfen Intermediate Court rang unanswered on Thursday. A man who answered at Fushan police headquarters hung up after a reporter identified himself and calls to other local government departments went unanswered.
According to the U.S.-based China Aid Association, local authorities had earlier chosen not to prosecute church leaders under harsh anti-cult legislation that could have brought more severe sentences. That seemed to indicate they would continue to allow the church to exist, although reports said police continued to be posted outside church offices.
The association said the sentences were the toughest against unofficial church leaders since Zhang Rongliang received 7.5 years in 2006. It said lawyers for the five had been shown only a fraction of the documents submitted in the case and claimed the verdicts had been predetermined - a common accusation in politically sensitive cases.
"We strongly condemn this unjust sentence based on trumped-up charges. This case clearly shows the seriously deteriorating situation of religious persecution in China," association President Bob Fu said in a statement.
Officially, China's communist government requires all Protestants to worship in the non-denominational Three-Self Patriotic Movement, while Catholics must meet in the Patriotic Association. Both are beholden to the Religious Affairs bureau, while the degree of tolerance for unregistered churches varies from location to location.
The number of Christians in China is estimated to be about 50 million to 130 million.