01/25/2012, 00.00
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Underground Protestant pastor unexpectedly released

Shi Enhao, a leading member of an alliance of Chinese house churches, was supposed to purge one more year of forced labour. International human rights groups welcome his release but demand China does the same for other Christian religious leaders in jail. Three underground Catholic bishops and six priests are unaccounted for or in prison without charges or trial.
Beijing (AsiaNews) – The Chinese government unexpectedly released a Christian religious leader. After his arrest last year, Rev Shi Enhao was sentenced to two years of forced labour. According to the ChinaAid Association, which had launched a campaign for his release, he was scheduled to spend one more year behind bars. He had been convicted for "holding illegal meetings and organising illegal venues for religious meetings."

Shi is the vice president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, a network of Protestant churches that is outside of the Three Self-Patriotic Movement, an organisation set up by Mao Zedong to control the country’s Protestant communities. Like the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the movement operates as a de fact official Church on behalf of the regime. However, freedom of religion and pastoral activities within its ranks are limited.

In order not to submit to the government, many Protestants have set up ‘house churches’, small private places of worship run by clergymen who do not belong to the Three Self-Patriotic Movement.

As in the case of the underground Catholic Church, the government has come down hard on Protestant house churches.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide has welcomed Rev Shi’s unexpected release. At the same time, it c calls on Chinese authorities to free other Christian clergy unjustly jailed, people like Alimujiang Yimiti, who was given a 15-year sentence in 2011, Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer whose whereabouts were unknown until recently when he “reappeared” in a prison in northern China, and Fan Yafeng, head of the Shengshan House Church.

ChinaAid’s campaign is similar to one recently launched by AsiaNews on behalf of three underground bishops and six priests, who have disappeared or are known to be held by police.

The year 2011 was terrible for human rights and religious freedom in China. The government has in fact intensified its crackdown against Catholics and other Christians as well as Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uyghurs.

What is more, as a way to resist international pressures, China's State Administration of Religious Affairs last month appointed nine spokespersons to brief the media, answer queries online and "enhance understanding of religious matters."
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