China has sentenced pastor Wang Yi, founder of the Early Rain Covenant Church and a critic of Chinese president Xi Jinping, to nine years in prison, according to a government statement released on Monday.
Early Rain boasted over 500 members in 2018 as well as seminary to train clergy members, a kindergarten and elementary school, and a bookstore, all of which were unregistered with Chinese authorities and thus technically illegal. Wang, his wife Jiang Rong, and over 100 congregation members were arrested in December 2018. Most of the parishoners, including Jiang, were eventually released.
“Pastor Wang Yi was just sentenced to 9 years in prison for proclaiming the gospel,” the Early Rain congregation said in a statement on its Facebook page. “May the Lord use Pastor Wang Yi’s imprisonment to draw many to himself and to bring glory to his name.”
Wang, 45, converted to Christianity in 2005. Months after his conversion he appeared at the White House along with other Chinese Christian leaders to ask for then-president Bush’s help to advocate for their religious freedom.
Their are roughly 60 million Chinese citizens who practice Protestant Christianity, most of them living in the center of the country. China views independent Christian organizations with suspicion and has cracked down on some of those organizations. Restrictions on worship for China’s 20 million Muslims has culminated in an ongoing crackdown against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Independent churches in China have a desire to be public, but the government worries they will undermine its authority.
“The government is worried about the development of these churches,” said the director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong ,Ying Fuk-tsang, in comments to the New York Times. “They think there are too many, and they are going against the bigger ones to solve the problem in this fashion.”
Wang has pushed for his church to remain a public force. It is “better to harm your body ten times over, than to harm your soul once,” said Wang in a 2017 sermon, in a quote he attributed to Herman Hesse.