Chinese pastor Wang Yi, founder of Early Rain Covenant Church, has been sentenced to nine years in prison on the charges of inciting state subversion and illegal business operation, a court in Sichuan in southwest China said on Monday.
One year after his incommunicado detention and a recent secret trial, Wang has also been deprived of his political rights for three years with 50,000 yuan ($7,157) of his personal property being confiscated, the announcement on the court's website added.
The court, however, gave no details of its so-called "open" trial, which Wang allegedly faced last week.
Religious rights activists called Wang's verdict the harshest in a decade, which paints a bleak picture of China's government-led persecution of religious groups under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Wang was among dozens of the church's followers and leaders including his wife detained by police in December 2018 although most were subsequently released.
The 46-year-old pastor is also a productive writer, social activist and formerly a legal scholar at Chengdu University before he took up the pastorate.
According to Bob Fu, founder of China Aid, a Texas, U.S.-based Christian human rights group which promotes religious freedom and rule of law in China, Wang's sentence is the longest against an ethnic Chinese house church leader in a decade, prior to which, Uyghur house church leader Alimujiang Yimiti from Xinjiang was given a 15-year sentence in 2008.
"This demonstrates President Xi's regime is determined to be the enemy of the universal values and the religious freedom," Fu said.
"It shows the regime is very afraid of pastor Wang Yi's national and international impact based on his reformed evangelic movement," he added.
Under Xi, China has intensified its crackdown on unsupervised religious followers be it Christians, Muslims or even Buddhists.
In the past few years, authorities there have not only jailed pastors, but also closed churches and taken down thousands of crosses and, in some places, there is a push to ensure that anyone under the age of 18 cannot attend church or be under the influence of religion – what Fu called the worst religious persecution since the Cultural Revolution.
China is officially atheist, but says it allows religious freedom.
And Wang's church is one of China's best-known unregistered Protestant "house" churches, deemed illegal under Chinese laws, which require all places of worship to register and submit to government oversight.
In other words, criminal charges against Wang can apply to all other unregistered church leaders and goers, which observers say is sending another chilling effect on Chinese religious believers
"He [Wang] is a martyr who suffers the persecution… The chilling effect was there because many people will be deterred, not to speak up. But those who really are fighting hard for their own faith, for their own religion, will not bend," said Sang Pu, a commentator in Hong Kong.
Sang said that many church goers are finding new places or new ways to worship in spite of the Chinese government's crackdown.
Analysts have long argued that China's Communist Party will have a hard time suppressing Christians in China as Yang Feggang of Purdue University once estimated that the country's population of Christians has unstoppably grown ten-fold from six millions in 1980 to more than 67 million in 2010.
Yang estimated that China will turn out to have the world's largest population of more than 247 million Christians in 2030.
Rights activists, in addition, denounced Wang's trial, saying that the pastor has been deprived of due legal proceedings and representation.
They said that Wang likely stood trial secretly on December 26th when no one from his family was notified or present at the court.
His former lawyer Zhang Peihong, originally hired by Wang's parents to represent him, had been replaced by two government-appointed lawyers in November.
"Those who do evil will be in trouble. You're not keeping a criminal behind bars. Instead, you're crowning a righteous man!" Zhang posted Monday on Facebook, which is banned in China, apparently writing about Wang's case.
Since June, Wang's wife Jiang Rong has been out on "bail" after being detained alongside her husband during the initial raid on the church.
But both she, their son and Wang's parents are still under close surveillance by state security police, according to Fu.
"Jiang Rong is staying in a public security-arranged apartment and their 13-year-old son is not allowed even to have freedom to meet with his own mom and grandparents," Fu said, adding that "every day, he has to take a police car to go to school and being picked up by the police. No freedom at all."