Xinjiang court sentences five Christians to prison for planning Bible study session

Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin November 10, 2013. | ReutersKim Kyung-Hoon

A court in China's northwestern province of Xinjiang has sentenced five Christians to jail for their involvement in the planning of a Bible study session.

The five Christians were tried in court last October on charges of illegal assembly and "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" after they held a private event at the home of one of the defendants, China Aid reported.

On April 18, the court sentenced Yang Zhaocun and Wang Lulu to five years in prison. Cheng Yajie was sentenced to four years, while Liu Yan and Zheng Lan got three years. The defense attorneys were reportedly not informed about the court's verdict.

"The judges wrongfully determined the nature of the case, and the sentences were unreasonably harsh. How can private gatherings disrupt public order? The public security bureau exceeded its authority and crossed a line," said one defense lawyer.

During the trial, Zheng confessed to hosting "illegal religious activities," while Wang and Cheng admitted that they took part in an "illegal assembly."

The charges against the five Christians stem from a gathering of more than 50 believers in early March at Zheng's home, where they studied the Bible and listened to sermons.

Government documents indicate that Yang and Liu were in charge of researching potential meeting places and transporting the congregants.

Yang and Liu were considered as accessories to the crime because of the said activities, while the others were labeled as primary criminals.

When the government officials raided the gathering, Yang, Zheng, Cheng, and Wang were taken into custody, and Liu was arrested at her home. All five defendants have pleaded innocent and are considering an appeal.

In February, authorities in Xinjiang launched a crackdown on unofficial worship on the region as part of the government's "anti-terrorism" measures. Christians were warned to halt all activities on underground Catholic churches and Protestant house churches.

There are about 68 million protestants in China, but only around 23 million attend state-affiliated churches. About 5.7 million of the nation's nine million Catholics belong to state-sponsored organizations.

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has put increasing pressure on religious groups to join the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Association or the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. President Xi Jinping's administration considers Christianity as a foreign import and officials have recently warned against "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.