Underground Church Pastor Sent to Chinese Labor Camp

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN | July 26, 2011 | 6:29 AM EDT

BEIJING (AP) — An underground Protestant leader has been sentenced to two years in a labor camp as China cracks down on unapproved churches that are getting bolder in confronting government religious policy, a U.S.-based monitoring group said Tuesday.

The expansion and growing influence of unofficial churches has unsettled China's rulers, always suspicious of any independent social group that could challenge Communist authority.

China Aid Association said Pastor Shi Enhao, 55, was sentenced over the weekend for organizing illegal religious gatherings. He had been detained June 21 in the eastern city of Suqian in Jiangsu province.

Labor camp sentences are handed out without trial on the recommendation of police and can be extended beyond the usual two-year term.

Shi's church was also ordered to cease meeting and its car, cash donations, musical instruments and even choir robes were seized by police, said China Aid, based in Midland, Texas.

China's officially atheistic ruling Communist Party claims to protect freedom of worship and authorities usually refuse to comment on prosecutions against religious figures.

A man who answered the phone at the Suqian police spokesman's office said he had no knowledge of the case. The man gave only his surname, Tian, because he was not authorized to speak with media.

Another man who answered the phone at the Suqian local government's Religious Affairs Bureau said he knew of no such case. The man refused to give his name as is common among Chinese bureaucrats.

Shi is a deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance, a national group of underground congregations established to provide mutual support and intercede with authorities who routinely threaten and harass unofficial churches.

China Aid said Shi's son, Shi Yongyang, was forced to sign a document confirming his father's sentencing, but was not provided with the required copy in an apparent attempt to downplay news of the sentence.

In detaining him on June 21, police cited the charge of "suspicion of using superstition to undermine national law enforcement," according to a charging document scanned and posted to China Aid's website. That was apparently replaced with the lesser charge of organizing illegal gatherings to avoid a trial.

In an example of the growing boldness of religious organizations in China, underground Protestant church leaders issued a petition to the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature, in May that called for an end to persecution of a Beijing church. The Shouwang Church and its 1,000 members have been blocked from their worship place for weeks and members detained at home to prevent them protesting.

The crackdown on underground Protestant churches comes amid faltering relations with the Vatican over Beijing's refusal to recognize the Holy See's exclusive right to name bishops.

On Monday, China called the Vatican "extremely unreasonable and rude" for expressing anger at three recent ordinations done without the pope's approval.