China underground church
China has repeatedly said that its citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief, but Catholic rights groups have for years reported police repression of 'underground,' churches, which operate without government-approvalMARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

A Chinese court sentenced a Christian pastor and his wife to prison after they led a protest to oppose the removal of a cross from atop their church by the government. Bao Guohua will have to serve 14 years in prison and his wife, Xing Wenxiang received 12 years after being accused of corruption and disturbing social order. 10 other members of the Protestant church were also imprisoned.

On 26 February, a court in eastern Zhejiang province concluded that the couple had illegally organised churchgoers to petition the government and disturb social order, Zhejiang Daily newspaper reported.

The Chinese government had started a campaign to remove all crosses on top of churches claiming they violate building codes. 1,200 crosses have already been removed from church-tops and a number of churches have been completely demolished for not being properly authorised.

The move is being seen as an effort by authorities to oppress the growing Christian community and put a halt to their activities.

Guohua was also accused of corruption and tricking his congregation into donating money to the tune of $336,000 (£242,000) and then spending it on cars and other personal items.

Texas-based China Aid which helps the communist country's churches to resist the cross removals through funding, said in a blog post, "The government's criminal prosecution against the pastor and his believers is actually religious persecution."

Prior to the sentencing, Zhang Kai, a popular Christian lawyer known for defending churches, appeared on a local television station confessing to colluding with foreign groups to instigate religious unrest. Kai also referenced China Aid as trying to "change China's political system" and stated that he received payment from them to defend churches in China.

China Aid director, Bob Fu followed Kai's TV appearance with a statement saying, "Although China Aid is mentioned in the shameful Chinese Communist Party's official propaganda as an 'overseas force supporting Zhang Kai's legal defense work,' we will never be intimidated nor cease to continue to promote religious freedom for all in China."

The Chinese government sees religious organisations not authorised by it as cults and as per the changes to article 300 of the Criminal Law proposed by the National People's Congress in August 2015, those participating in or organising cults are open to punishment.