Chinese officials have barred a prominent human rights lawyer from pleading innocent on behalf of a Christian woman detained for holding an "illegal" church service as crackdowns on religious belief continue to intensify.
Persecution watchdog China Aid reports that in November, a trial commenced for Ma Huichao, who was charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" after she and four others gathered at her house for a church meeting in China's northwestern Xinjiang.
Arguing that the Christians held religious services without government approval, authorities administratively detained Ma's companions before releasing them. However, authorities decided to prosecute Ma, and at the trial, refused to allow her lawyer, Li Dunyong, to plead innocent on her behalf. According to Li, the court is currently adjourned.
As earlier reported, in an attempt to strengthen the Communist Party's control over society and combat foreign influences it considers to be a threat, China's cabinet, the State Council, released a new set of rules aimed at eliminating unofficial Christian worship in unregistered "house churches," and "separatists" among Tibetans and Muslim Uyghurs.
The new regulations, enacted October 7th, state that "citizens enjoy religious freedom" in China and that "no organization can discriminate against citizens who believe in a religion." However, they include bans on preaching or running religious events in schools, and on "providing religious services online." Groups are also prohibited from "organizing citizens to attend religious training, conferences and activities overseas" and parents and guardians in Xinjiang who encourage or force their children into religious activities will be reported to the police.
Since then, crackdowns on religious belief have intensified: China Aid reports that in the past two months alone, dozens of Christians from across the region have been taken into police custody for practicing their faith.
According to the Pew Research Center, Christianity is widely considered the fastest-growing faith in China with as many as 67 million adherents now. It is estimated that about half of the country's Christian population worship in unregistered house churches, making it the "largest autonomous social group in China."
In its annual report on religious persecution released earlier this year, China Aid, said the new restrictions violated the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religious belief, and said ongoing persecution campaigns "made 2016 one of the most tyrannical years since the Cultural Revolution."