Henan court sentences one of China's most prominent Christian leaders to seven years in prison

Zhang Rongliang, a "patriarch" in China's house churches, is convicted for "attaining a passport through cheating" and "illegal border crossing". His health is reason for great concern.

Zhongmu (AsiaNews) – Protestant clergyman Rev Zhang Rongliang, one of the better known Chinese House Church leaders, was sentenced to seven and half years in prison for "attaining a passport through cheating" and "illegal border crossing", this according to the China Aid Association, a US-based organisation fighting for religious freedom in China.

The verdict was pronounced on July 4 by the Zhongmu County People's Court, but neither Zhang's wife nor other members of his immediate family received a formal notification.

Zhang, 55, was arrested on December 1 2004 in Xuzhai village (Henan province) in a rented apartment, following which police confiscated Christian DVD's, materials and photos that it claimed proved his ties to foreigners and foreign agencies.

Zhang's wife and their two sons have been "deeply concerned" for his health, especially since he has had diabetes for the past seven years. His conditions are so serious that he had to be admitted to the Xinmi City People's Hospital whilst in detention. There he was seen handcuffed and chained to his hospital bed.

Zhang heads Henan's Fangcheng Mother Church and the China for Christ Church, which is one of the largest house church networks in the country with an estimated membership of more than 10 million.

He is well known to the world's Protestant community as one of the house church patriarchs.

He co-authored of House Churches of China's Confession of Faith and Declaration, published in 1999, and has been featured in a number of international publications.

Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding Zhang's release.

He has already spent 12 years in prison for his faith since he was secretly baptised in 1969. In prison he has experienced torture, including electric shocks.

Beijing allows the practice of Protestant Christianity only within the Movement of the Three Autonomies (MTA), an organisation set up in 1950 after Mao seized power and expelled foreign missionaries and church leaders, including Chinese ones.

According to official figures, there are about 10 million Protestants in China, all belonging to the MTA. But unofficial Protestants, who meet in unregistered "house churches", are estimated to be more than 50 million.

Last year the government arrested 1958 pastors and faithful from unofficial Protestant churches.