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Five Chinese Christians face long prison sentences after failed appeals

(Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon)Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin. Picture taken November 10, 2013.

Five Christians are facing long prison sentences after a court in China's northwestern Xinjiang rejected their appeals.

In April, the Christians received sentences ranging between three to five years in prison after they hosted a private Christian meeting in a home last year, which the court ruled was "gathering a crowd to disturb public order."

According to China Aid, Yang Zhaocun and Wang Lulu were sentenced to five years, while Cheng Yajie received a four-year prison sentence. Liu Yan and Zheng Lan were each sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

The five Christians filed appeals to overturn the sentences, but a Chinese court rejected their pleas on June 27.

The verdict noted that there were more than 50 people who participated in activities that were deemed "illegal," including studying the Bible, during the gathering at Zheng's home on March 5, 2016.

Wang and Cheng had admitted that they planned the gathering, while Zheng said she had been providing accommodation to personnel from a Christian organization since 2011.

The five Christians were held in custody for more than a year before they were sentenced on April 18.

Zheng reportedly had no connection to the Christians who were gathering at her home. She had been prosecuted for agreeing to accommodate them and for organizing large-scale Bible studies.

In her appeal, she contended that she grew up in abject poverty and did not receive a high level of education, causing her to be unaware of stipulation about such gatherings.

Liu's appeal argued that the official charge was only meant to convict behaviors that disrupt the process of work, production, business teaching, and scientific research and is determined by the "seriousness" of the infraction.

She also noted that while Article 12 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs states that religious gatherings usually should be held in registered religious sites, it does not formally stipulate sanctions against small religious gatherings in private homes.

The court ruled that the arguments of the appeals did not match the details of the case, which accused the Christians of the crime. However, the verdict failed to elaborate on how the gathering had disturbed public order, making the arrests completely arbitrary.

The judge reportedly disclosed in private that Xinjiang's politics and law committee issued a document prohibiting house churches and ordering the punishment of the attendees. China Aid noted that the document has not yet been released to the public.

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