A court in China sentenced Pastor Wang Yi, founder of the illegal Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, to nearly a decade in prison on Monday for operating an illegal “business” and “inciting subversion.”
Wang founded the Early Rain church in 2008 and did not register it with the Chinese Communist Party, which would have required the church to adopt “patriotic” communist teachings instead of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Early Rain is believed to be one of China’s largest “illegal” churches, home to an estimated 500 registered worshippers, nearly a thousand including those who regularly came to services but were not formal members, and held religious education classes for local children.
It is illegal in China for minors to attend any religious service.
China allows its citizens to practice only five religions legally: Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Christianity (separate from the Chinese Communist Catholic Church, which does not operate under the Vatican). The Communist Party strictly controls the teachings and practices of all legal churches to ensure that it promote communist values.
The heavy emphasis on worshipping dictator Xi Jinping in “patriotic” Christian churches has led millions to practice in underground or “house” churches. While technically a “house” church, Early Rain conducts its practices largely in open defiance of Beijing in church buildings.
According to the South China Morning Post, a Chengdu court found Wang guilty of “inciting subversion of state power” by continuing to practice Christianity without Communist Party approval and running an “illegal business,” as the court deemed the church. Wang was sentenced to nine years in prison, fined $7,000 in personal assets, and “stripped of his political rights for three years.” As Chinese people do not have political rights under the Communist Party, this likely means Wang will not be able to vote in local sham elections for Communist Party politicians.
Wang’s government “social credit” score will also suffer tremendously, meaning he will likely lose his right to travel even within the country when his prison term ends.
Police arrested Wang, along with dozens of other Early Rain worshippers, shortly before Christmas in 2018, violently raiding the church prior to a Sunday service on International Human Rights Day in a siege that eyewitnesses say lasted for 11 hours. The siege followed the shutdown of social media accounts run by members of the church and resulted in dozens of arrests. Many who were not actively involved in organizing services reported being arrested and released after being forced to sign documents stating they would never again attend an “illegal” church service.
“Even if we are down to our last five, worship and gatherings will still go on because our faith is real. Persecution is a price worth paying for the Lord. We would rather live through it than to hide our faith and we hope more Chinese churches will speak up and stand with us,” church elder Li Yingqiang said at the time.
While over 100 people were arrested, 54 were formally charged with “subverting state power.”
Wang turned to the faith in 2005 after years as a legal scholar and human rights advocate. He deliberately founded Early Rain three years later as a church independent of the Communist Party, which Chinese law does not allow, to spread true Christianity in the country. Wang openly denounced dictator Xi Jinping for violating the rights of his citizens through limitations on religious freedom and engaged in defiant acts such as commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, which China censors all mention of within its borders.
Wang wrote a statement denouncing Beijing in September 2018, preparing for the possibility of being sentenced to prison and being forced to “confess” to crimes against the state.
“Imprisoned as God’s servant, I would resist all people who resist God with gentleness, I would gladly not abide by any law that does not abide by God,” the statement, released after his arrest, read.
Pastor Bob Fu, who leads the Christian support organization China Aid, described the sentence against Wang as “the harshest persecution [of] an ethnic Chinese house church pastor in more than a decade” and urged action by the United States to punish China for religious persecution. He also predicted the sentence was meant to send a message to other Christians to cease defying Beijing or face similar punishment.
“Today’s verdict makes a mockery of China’s supposed religious freedoms. Wang Yi was merely practicing his religion and peacefully standing up for human rights in China.
“This nine-year sentence is appalling and unjust. Wang Yi is a prisoner of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released,” Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement following the sentencing. “It speaks volumes that Wang Yi felt he needed to prepare a statement in advance refuting the court’s conclusions, together with any ‘confessions’ he might be forced to make. In China, religious practitioners live under the permanent threat of politically motivated prosecution and conviction.”
China has failed to cover any news on Early Rain in its English-language state media outlets, including Wang’s sentence, at press time.