07/04/2014, 00.00
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Protestant pastor gets 12 years for opposing the seizure of church land

Shaojie Zhang was arrested along with 20 other members of the official Christian church in Nanle in November 2013. Nothing had been known about his whereabouts until his trial. Officially, the court convicted him for "fraud" and "gathering crowds". His lawyer slams the "fabricated charges".

Beijing (AsiaNews) - The Nanle People's District Court, in Henan province, sentenced an official Protestant pastor to 12 years in prison on charges of "fraud" and "gathering crowds."

For his lawyer and the China Aid Association (CinaAid), which monitors religious freedom in China, the allegations are totally "fabricated charges". The religious leader was jailed instead because he opposed a land grab at his community's expense.

Shaojie Zhang was arrested in November 2013 along with 20 other members of a Christian church in Nanle County, in the central province of Henan.

Some police officers "invited him for an interview" on 16 November. After that, he disappeared into their custody until he was put on trial.

The clergyman belongs to the Three-Self Movement, the "official" Protestant Church set up under Mao Zedong in the early years of his regime.

In China, religious groups are allowed to operate if they register. However, underground Protestants (about 80 million) outnumber the official (Protestant) Three-Self Movement (about 20 million).

Fearing that the situation might get out of hand, China's Communist Party has been cracking down for almost five years in order to eliminate underground communities or merge them into official ones.

According to some sources, the arrest was due to a dispute with local authorities over church-owned land, which the former wanted to sell them to private developers.

The kind of practice is very common in China, where despite national law and jurisprudence, party officials have no qualms in stealing land from private individuals, villages or organised groups - such as churches or Buddhist monasteries - to make a profit.

The details relating to Zhang's case are not yet known, but for his lawyer Yang Xingquan the charges that led to his conviction are baseless and fabricated.

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