By BosNewsLife News Center
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife) -- Two leaders of China's growing house church movement were in a labor camp Sunday, July 8, after being sentenced to "one year re-education through labor" in Shandong province on charges related to their Christian activities, BosNewsLife learned.
A local court, known as the 'Management Committee of the People's Government' of the province's Heze City, said Pastors Hang Geming and Sun Qingwen were "using an evil cult to obstruct the law," according to a notification paper translated by religious rights group China Aid Association (CAA).
It said the pastors had been sent to "Re-education through [the] Labor Camp of Jining City," of Shandong province. They began serving the sentence June 29 and were expected to be released June 14, 2008, at the earliest.
Local Christians said in published remarks that both pastors were "evangelical missionaries" sent by their churches from Henan province to Shandong. They were reportedly detained June 15 along with four other local church leaders when they had a worship service. The four local pastors were released on July 1 after being forced to pay a 10000 yuan ($1300) fine, CAA said.
MORE SENTENCES EXPECTED
The US-based CAA, which has close contacts with house churches in China, said authorities are also expected to sentence two other church leaders in Shanxi province to "re-education through labor" soon on similar charges of "using an evil cult to obstruct" Chinese law.
Pastors Zhou Jieming and Niu Wenbin have been detained since June 10 after they were arrested along with 12 other church leaders while distributing Bibles at a market place in the province's Jiaocheng county, CAA said.
Four of them were eventually released the same day of the June 9 arrests while six other church leaders were reportedly released on June 15 from a local detention center, allegedly without any legal paper or explanation from the Public Security Bureau (PSB), one of China's main law-enforcement agencies.
Several female leaders were allegedly abused and beaten by PSB officers, but Chinese officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
CAA said it also established that on June 29 one more church leader was detained in Shanxi province and sentenced to "10 days administrative detention." The 54-year old detained woman, Gao Qiuxian, is the wife of Senior Pastor Zhang Tuanyuan who has been in hiding after being prosecuted for his activities for the Jiaocheng House Church, CAA added.
Chinese government officials have denied human rights abuses and say Christians are free to worship in the official church denominations. However most of China's Christians, about 150 million by some estimates, prefer to worship in underground 'house churches', named this way as they are often held in homes of believers.
House church Christians have expressed concerns about what they see as the Communist government's interference in the official Catholic and Protestant churches. CAA said it has appealed to Chinese authorities to unconditionally release "these five innocent house church leaders in Shandong and Shanxi" provinces.
News of the detentions comes shortly after Pope Benedict XVI urged China in an open letter to allow more religious freedom, although he mentioned especially China's estimated 12 million Catholics, a minority among China's mainly Protestant Christians.
BETTER RELATIONS POSSIBLE?
The pontiff said he hopes of better relations with Beijing and suggested a possible re-unification between the 'underground' and the pro-government Catholic churches. With a conciliatory tone, the 55-page letter acknowledged the half-century-old split between the government-sponsored "Patriotic Catholic Church" and the underground church that remains loyal to the Pope.
When Communists took control of China in 1949, they set up a state-run church and drove Catholics loyal to the Vatican underground. Today, the Vatican and Chinese government each claim the right to appoint China's Catholic bishops.
It is one of many issues preventing normalization of ties between them, church observers have said. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and reporting from China).
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