Chinese Christian pastor Zhang Shaojie was convicted July 4th and sentenced to 12 years in prison in retaliation for his peaceful advocacy on behalf of his church community. The United States calls on Chinese authorities to release Pastor Zhang immediately and cease harassment of his family members and congregants.
Pastor Zhang, chairman and president of the government-sanctioned Nanle County Christian Church in Henan province, was convicted of “gathering crowds to disturb public order” and fraud, charges his lawyer called “untenable” and “without foundation.”
The pastor was detained last November along with more than 20 other church members after a dispute with local officials, who they claimed were trying to seize the land on which their place of worship was built.
“I strongly believe Zhang Shaojie is innocent,” said Liu Weiguo, a rights lawyer who has worked with the pastor in the past. He added, “This is a total set-up by the local government.”
Pastor Zhang’s supporters say this case highlights a growing crackdown on freedom of religion in mainland China as authorities grapple with a rapidly growing Christian population. Recently, some state-run churches have been demolished or had their crosses forcibly removed.
Pressure is also mounting on rights advocates and lawyers in China. Several lawyers have been detained or formally arrested for attempting to defend clients, such as Chang Boyang, who faces criminal charges in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, for trying to represent three people detained for attending a May commemoration of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on Tiananmen Square democracy protests.
The United States calls on Chinese authorities to allow citizens to worship and gather freely in accordance with China’s own laws and its international human rights commitments. Freedom of religion is critical to a peaceful, inclusive, stable, and thriving society.