This is a heartbreaking outcome to a situation many of us have prayed about for a long time. Please pray for this family. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for information I'm not free to publicly publish here.
China imprisons 'hero' for crime of giving out Bibles Shi Weihan shown in a 2007 photo in a school for the children of migrant workers in Shanxi province, China.
Man praised as model citizen gets three-year sentence for violating publishing law
Jun 13, 2009 04:30 AM
BEIJING – By all accounts, Shi Weihan was a model Chinese citizen. A kind-hearted man with a sense of social responsibility, he donated funds to send poor kids to school, raised money for those suffering from congenital heart disease, and when the Sichuan earthquake hit, worked tirelessly for the emergency relief effort.
But Shi had a fatal flaw. He printed Bibles – and gave them out for free. This week a criminal court in Beijing sentenced him to three years in jail. His wife and 65-year-old parents were crushed – his two daughters, 13 and 9, were inconsolable.
"The children just cannot accept it," says Zhang Jing, Shi's wife. "Their father is their biggest hero. They cried uncontrollably. They couldn't believe their father was convicted like an ordinary criminal."
Shi was also fined about $25,000. Six others who stood trial with him received lesser sentences this week.
Despite a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and even of religious belief, religious activities in China remain strictly monitored by the Communist party government and for those who dare to operate outside of that control – there are punishments.
Shi's is one such case. He is the pastor of a "house church" group, a small gathering of Christians who choose to worship outside the gaze of government and its Religious Affairs Administration, which keeps a close eye and tight rein on all churches in China.
But Shi's staunch Christian belief and his humanitarian work in the countryside brought him into contact with many other "believers," his wife explains, and he learned that there was a dearth of Bibles in rural China.
That inspired him to spread the word, she says. "He saw that we shared the same belief with those poor people," she notes, "and they didn't have access to Bibles."
Shi's lawyer, Zhang Xingshui, argued in court earlier this year that despite the fact the Bible is the most printed book in the world, "there is not a single bookstore in China where one can buy Bibles or other gospel books."
Believers can only buy Bibles in churches approved and watched over by the government. So, together with a group of friends who ran a printing shop in downtown Beijing, Shi began printing and distributing Bibles for free.
The government first swooped down on him in November 2007 and charged him with illegally running a business operation with the purpose of "gaining illegal profits."
He was released, rearrested and finally tried this year.
"Shi Weihan is a devout Christian," lawyer Zhang Xingshui told the court during a hearing in April, explaining that his client printed the Bibles and other religious books with money raised by other churchgoers.
He said they follow Christ's teachings to "love others as they love themselves, which is beneficial for social stability and harmony."
China's President Hu Jintao has repeatedly stressed that "stability" and the creation of a "harmonious society" are the Communist party government's paramount goals.
Shi's lawyer repeatedly stressed that, "teaching people to be benevolent, tolerant and loving to all people," could only help the government and China to achieve those goals.
And he went further, citing a speech by the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, defending religious freedom.
"On April 24, 1945, Mao Zedong said in `On United Government,'" a report he delivered at the Seventh Communist Party of China National Congress, that "people's freedom of speech, press, assembly association, thinking, faith and personal freedom are the most important types of freedom."
But the court's prosecutor argued that even if Shi had not sold the Bibles for "illegally gained profits," he contravened the government's "regulations on the administration of publications," which says only companies "approved by the state" are allowed to publish anything in China.
Shi's wife, Zhang Jing, explained yesterday that her husband had made an application to the government to win such approval. "But the government rejected the application," she said.
Lawyer Zhang Xingshui countered that such regulations were clearly unconstitutional, as they violated rights guaranteed in the Chinese constitution itself. "Citizens' freedom of press means freedom of expression, copying and publication without the approval of the state," he argued. "One should not punish people with criminal law for their religious activities," he told the court.
Zhang Xingshui was not in the court to hear the verdict this week. His licence has been suspended by the government department that oversees lawyer licensing. Shi's wife said she feared his licence had been suspended for having taken on her husband's case.
Reached by phone, Zhang Xingshui declined to be interviewed, saying he was still hoping to have the suspension of his licence overturned.
Would Shi's wife be seeking another lawyer to launch an appeal in the meantime, she was asked. "There might not be another lawyer who would take this case," she said, "because it deals with religion."