A 39-year-old house church pastor who was sentenced in absentia on December 30 to two and a half years for leaking state secrets in southwest China’s Guizhou province but was only informed of the verdict last week said he will seek an appeal. Li Guozhi, known as Pastor Yang Hua with the Living Stone Church in the provincial capital Guiyang, had pleaded not guilty at a closed-door hearing on December 26 in Nanming district court. A written verdict was handed down four days after the hearing but it did not reach him or his lawyers by mail until this week. Why are Chinese Christians so concerned about new religious affairs regulations? Critics labelled the case religious persecution, part of an intensifying trend by Beijing to crack down unsanctioned religious groups. A pastor commenting on the case who refused to be named for fear of retribution described the verdict as “ridiculous”. “It is religious persecution inside and out with legal and political implications? It is truly sad and disappointing,” said the pastor. Li was accused of forwarding a social media post containing a document that was deemed as state secret by Guizhou authorities. The document concerned a plan to crack down on the Living Stone Church in 2015, according to the verdict. Li also distributed a letter calling for prayers for the church in the online post. Living Stone was eventually shut down, with hundreds of members dispersed. Only a few dozen meet privately at individual houses today. Authorities sealed the church’s 600-square-metre office worth 5 million yuan (HK$5.6 million) suspended its bank accounts . In December 2015, Li was placed in administrative detention for five days for disturbing public order and was officially arrest the following month for leaking state secrets. He remained locked up in Nanming district detention centre for more than a year while another pastor of the church, Su Tianfu, who was placed under a year-long residential surveillance, and two other Christians were charged by with the same crime. Hundreds of police dismantle cross at Wenzhou church, while fire guts Ningbo cathedral “The so-called state secret was a document prepared by a temporary city administrative task force calling for the destruction of Living Stone Church. But the decision itself was illegal and should have been exposed instead,” said Shandong-based lawyer Zhao Yonglin. According to a defence statement prepared by Zhao and Chen Jiangang, another lawyer for Li, alleged that Pastor Yang Hua had been tortured and verbally abused to make a confession several times last year, but prosecutors denied this in the verdict. Days before Li’s hearing, Su was escorted away from Guiyang by secret state security agents, according to Wang Hongwu, Li’s wife, who was barred from attending the trial. “I knew nothing about the verdict until this week,” said Wang. The couple have two sons, aged 15 and six. “Yang Hua is appealing and I’m backing him all the way. The verdict is in the hands of the Lord. I trust that He will never do us wrong,” said Wang. Wang said she was thankful for one thing despite of the ordeal watching the church, one of the largest in Guiyang, being destroyed and her husband being locked away. “I was told that he is very popular inside prison. Most inmates don’t know his name but they call him Jesus. That must be all he talks about inside,” Wang said. China’s house churches, both Protestant and Catholic, operate independently from state-sanctioned religious organisations. The State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office recently considered introducing a tougher regulations on religious affairs, prompting concerns that house churches will be the state’s next target following last year’s massive crackdowns on lawyers and NGOs. Since 2014, a campaign in Zhejiang province has seen crosses removed from atop churches. It is estimated there are at least 60 million Christians in China, a third of whom belonging to official churches. Hundreds of police dismantle cross at Wenzhou church, while fire guts Ningbo cathedral Dr Fan Yafeng, a legal expert and director of the Holy Mountain Institute in Beijing, said house church Christians comprised the largest NGO outside party control, which worried authorities deeply. “Living Stone is a small case in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but it was a major crackdown target in a backwater city like Guiyang,” Fan said. In 2014, Pastor Zhang Shaojie of the Nale County Christian Church in Henan province, a sanctioned church, was sentenced to 12 years for fraud and for gathering crowds to disturb public order. “The crackdown targeting churches is expected to escalate in the next three to five years in general if there is no major political reform,” Fan said.