US calls on China to release jailed Early Rain church founder Wang Yi

Teddy Ng

The United States has called for the immediate release of a pastor from one of China’s best known unregistered churches who was jailed for nine years last month for inciting subversion.

The US Department of State expressed alarm at the trial and sentencing of Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

“We are alarmed that Pastor Wang Yi … was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison in connection to this peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. We call for his immediate and unconditional release,” department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

Wang was detained in December 2018 along with other senior figures in the prominent unsanctioned church during overnight raids across various districts of Chengdu, the city where the church was founded.

On Monday, the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court released its judgment, which said the pastor was also convicted of illegal business operations.

As well as the jail term, he will be stripped of his political rights for three years and personal assets valued at 50,000 yuan (US$7,000) will be confiscated.

“This is yet another example of Beijing’s intensification of repression of Chinese Christians and members of other religious groups,” the state department said.

“We continue to call on Beijing to uphold its international commitments and promises made in its own constitution to promote religious freedom for all individuals, including members of ethnic and religious minorities and those who worship outside of official state-sanctioned institutions.”

The arrest of Wang and the crackdown on Early Rain church was among a series of raids against unofficial churches in late 2018. Two other prominent churches, including Beijing’s Zion and Guangzhou’s Rongguili, were also shut last year.

100 Christians snatched in overnight raids on underground church

Early Rain has 500 registered members, according to other church leaders, but attracts more than 800 people each week, spread across more than a dozen meeting points around Chengdu. It also has about 100 seminary students and a primary school catering to about 40 children.

Wang was a human-rights activist and a constitutional scholar before becoming a pastor. In 2006, he met then-US president George W Bush in the White House.

Beijing has tightened its grip on religious practice, including Christianity, in recent years. Last February, the Religious Affairs Regulation was amended to give grass-roots officials more power to act against churches and impose tougher penalties for “unauthorised religious gatherings”.

In March 2019, Xu Xiaohong, chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-controlled body that runs state-approved Protestant churches, pledged to rid the faith in China of any Western “imprint” and called for further “Sinicisation” of religion.

Beijing plans to continue tightening grip on Christianity and Islam

The US and China have been trading barbs over a wide range of human rights issues, including religious freedom and the mass detention of Uygurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, which the US and other Western countries have described as persecution, but which Beijing has claimed are vocational training centres.

The United States’ top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, will raise the internment of Muslim ethnic minorities with his central Asian counterparts during his upcoming trip to the region, a senior state department official said on Monday.

During his visit to eastern Europe and central Asia from Friday through January 7, Pompeo will conduct meetings with representatives from a number of countries that have spoken out in support of Beijing’s actions in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Sign up now for our 50% early bird offer from SCMP Research: China AI Report. The all new SCMP China AI Report gives you exclusive first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments, and actionable and objective intelligence about China AI that you should be equipped with.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article US calls on China to release jailed Early Rain church founder Wang Yi first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.