Prosecutors drop corruption charges against former pastor of China's largest official church

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 senior pastor of China's largest official church has been released from prison after prosecutors dropped the corruption charges leveled against him.

Gu Yuese, who previously served as the senior pastor of Chongyi Church, returned home from prison on Friday, nearly a year following his formal arrest on Jan. 7.

Chongyi Church, located in downtown of Hangzhou city, is considered to be the largest government-run church in China.

The former pastor was dismissed from his role as senior pastor of the church in January 2016 after he was accused of misusing funds. He had also been ousted from his role as the chair of the local branch of the China Christian Council (CCC), a state-sanctioned religious organization that monitors registered churches in China.

The CCC, along with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TPSM), contended that Gu's removal was necessary 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."

Gu was initially detained on Jan. 27, 2016 after he was charged with "embezzlement of church funds." He was reportedly placed under "residential surveillance in a designated location," otherwise known as a "black jail," and was held incommunicado.

He was later released from detention on bail on March 31 that same year, but he was arrested again on the same charges on Jan. 7 by the public security bureau of Hangzhou. A report from China Christian Daily indicated that the case against Gu was dropped on Dec. 24.

According to China Aid, the charges against Gu came after he publicly opposed a province-wide cross demolition campaign.

After Gu's initial arrest, China Aid president Bob Fu stated that the charges against the former pastor were "political revenge" for his "disloyalty to the Chinese Communist Party's religious policy" by opposing the forced demolition of crosses on church buildings.

"In the past two weeks 18 crosses were removed and destroyed... Overall at least 1,800 crosses of churches were demolished since the campaign started," Fu said at the time.

In July this year, Gu's lawyer, Zhang Peihong, reportedly received a notice from the former pastor, who dismissed him, saying, "the last thing I want is to get you involved because of me." However, the validity of dismissal has been put into question as the Communist Party had previously pressured imprisoned Christians into firing lawyers.

China Aid noted that Gu's remaining lawyer, Xie Bingbing, had faced several difficulties while she was defending the former pastor, including being tracked and stalked.