Former pastor of largest church in China arrested on charges of embezzlement

A local resident rides a bicycle past a church in Xiaoshan, a commercial suburb of Hangzhou, the capital of China's east Zhejiang province December 21, 2006. | Reuters/Lang Lang/Files

The former pastor of the largest state-run megachurch in China's Zhejiang province has been arrested on charges of embezzling funds.

Gu "Joseph" Yuese, the former pastor of Chongyi Church in Zhejiang's capital of Hangzhou, was arrested sometime before Christmas, according to China Aid. His family received notice about his arrest on Jan. 7, informing them that Gu is being held at the Hangzhou Municipal Detention Center.

Chongyi Church is considered as the largest house of worship associated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TPSM), a government-run Christian organization.

Gu was removed from his position as a pastor of Chongyi on Jan. 18, 2016. He was later charged with embezzling funds and held in secret detention. He was released on bail after two months and placed under house arrest.

Gu had also served as the chairman of the local branch of the China Christian Council (CCC), another Christian organization run by the state.

The TPSM and the CCC stated that removing Gu was a necessary step in order to "move one step closer towards the proper self-construction and management of church locations ... and sort out the interpersonal relationship between the province and the two municipal [Christian] organizations."

In 2014, he publicly opposed the demolition of church crosses in Zhejiang. When the government launched the investigation against Gu, a group of Hong Kong-based Christians have alleged that the probe was linked to his opposition to the crackdown against Christian activity.

Over 1,500 Protestant and Catholic churches lost their crosses since the campaign, known as the "Three Rectifications and One Demolition," began in 2013. The authorities also went after those who protested against the removal of the crosses. More than 250 attorneys, pastors and human rights activists were detained or arrested from July to September 2015.

One of the lawyers was Zhang Kai, who led a group that defends churches whose crosses have been removed. He was held in a "black jail" for six months and only surfaced in February 2016 to make a forced confession on state-run television. He was charged with "endangering state secrets" and "gathering a crowd to disturb public order." He was released on bail on March 23.