Chinese pastor sentenced to 12 years in prison

The underground church in China faces ongoing persecution despite pledges from the government to improve religious freedom.AP

The Christian pastor of a church in Henan province has been jailed for 12 years by the Chinese courts.

Zhang Shaojie, who leads the Nanle County Christian Church, was found guilty of fraud and of "gathering crowds to disturb public order" on Friday.

His lawyer contends that the pastor is innocent, but "was targeted by authorities who are trying to control the fast growth of churches".

Shaojie and 23 members of his church were first detained last year as a result of a land dispute with local authorities, but supporters insist that they are being persecuted by the government and are innocent of all charges.

"This case shows the Chinese government continues to cover up religious persecution with fabricated criminal charges against an innocent church leader," Bob Fu, the head of US-based Christian group China Aid, told The Telegraph.

"Total fabricated charges!" he tweeted, following Shaojie's sentence this morning.

"I strongly believe Zhang Shaojie is innocent. This is a total set-up by the local government," warned lawyer Liu Weiguo who has previously worked with the church leader.

Although the right to freedom of religious belief is guaranteed under Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, that protection is limited to those who worship within state-sanctioned religious bodies. Those who choose to practise their faith outside of these, or whose beliefs are not officially recognised by the government, are at constant risk of being accused of participating in illegal activities, which carries heavy punishment.

Shaojie's church is apparently state-approved, which makes his arrest unusual, but it comes amidst allegations that the government is launching an offensive against Christian places of worship across the country.

A Communist official recently denounced the growth of Christianity as "too excessive and too haphazard" and several churches have been demolished by authorities in Zhejiang province in the past months.

When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, there were just one million Chinese Christians and Chairman Mao Zedong stated his determination to stamp out any kind of religion.  He is said to have told the Dalai Lama: "Religion is poison."

Despite this, however, experts believe that the number of Chinese Christians will continue to increase exponentially in the coming years. Professor Fenggang Yang of Purdue University has estimated that there will be 247 million Christians living in China by 2030 which – more than in the US.

"By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," he revealed.