Chinese Court releases 8 Christians after pleading guilty over church protests

Sanjiang Church was demolished in April last year.Twitter

Eight Christians were sentenced and released by a Chinese court on Wednesday, having pleaded guilty to the charge of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" when trying to prevent the demolition of their church last year.

The eight were among thousands who protested against the demolition of Sanjiang church in Wenzhou. The demolition was part of a widespread campaign against 'illegal' building structures that resulted in the full or partial demolition of more than 400 churches in Zhejiang province last year.

The case has drawn criticism as it is thought that they were coerced into pleading guilty, according to US-based Christian charity China Aid.

Among the eight was pastor Zhao Rendi, who was given a three-year sentence with a reprieve for four years.

Guo Yunhua, one of the church elders, and six others were given sentences ranging from a few months to a year, all with several months' reprieve.

Sanjiang church was torn down on 28 April 2014, for failing to meet building regulations. The building was seven stories high and totalled 100,000 square feet.

The authorities claim that the church exceeded the size set out in government regulations, but church members say that the government approved the plans at the time of construction.

China Aid reports that the indictment against them said that the church had been built on more than 38,000 square feet of farmland and that the churchmen had "obstructed the government's efforts to correct the illegal structure of Sanjiang Church." This allegedly resulted in the government spending more than 1.2 million Yuan (US $193,000; £130,000) in order to stabilise the building.

In a separate case this week pastor Huang Yizi was sentenced to one year in prison for a similar charge of 'gathering a crowd' when protesting against the removal of a cross from his church building in Pingyang County in July. He pleaded not guilty and his lawyer has said that he will appeal against the sentence. He could have faced up to seven years in prison for the charge.

The demolition campaign has faced widespread criticism as it was seen as a latent attack on the growth of Christianity in the region. However, the campaign does now appear to have stopped, according to reports from one Chinese bishop. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has also confirmed that the attacks on churches appear to have come to an end in the past couple of months.