Wang Yi was waiting for his arrest. Months before authorities swept into his church in the city of Chengdu in December 2018 and detained him, the outspoken pastor had prepared a six-page, handwritten statement denying the allegations he was sure the Chinese Communist Party would make against him for his work at one of China’s best-known underground churches.
In the end, the Chinese government didn’t even bother making a public case against him. On Monday, Wang was sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activities” following closed-door proceedings.
The pastor, who is the founder of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu will also be “stripped of political rights” for three years and have approximately $7,200 of his assets seized, according to a government statement. Wang is a well-known Christian leader and was invited to the White House in 2006 by George W. Bush to discuss religious freedom in China.
The U.S. was quick to denounce the prison sentence this week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised the verdict and called for his release: “I am alarmed that Pastor Wang Yi, leader of Chengdu’s Early Rain house church, was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison on trumped-up charges.”
Another leader at the church, located in the capital of Sichuan province, Qin Defu was sentenced to four years in prison for “illegal business operations” in November. Approximately 50 others from the church have been jailed, and some of those who have not been imprisoned have been subjected to harassment by the police or placed under house arrest, according to a Facebook page run by church supporters.
The lengthy sentence, and secret proceedings, show that the Chinese Communist Party feels threatened by the rapid spread of Christianity in the country—especially from churches that operate outside of the government’s rules, experts say.
Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and the Director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University tells TIME that there are about 116 million Protestant Christians in mainland China in 2020.
“It is almost certain that by 2030 there will be more Christians in China than any other country in the world,” Yang says. Christians in China are predominantly Protestant, he adds.
Compare that with an estimated 90 million members in the Communist Party, and government leaders believe they have cause for concern, Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies says.
Underground churches are “spreading like wildfire” in rural areas of China, he says. “The Chinese government is afraid that more people, including less educated people, are turning to the church for their spiritual needs and not to official nationalism and patriotism.”
Underground churches, which have not registered with the government and are sometimes called “house churches” because gatherings are often held in members’ homes, have reported increased repression since the introduction of new regulations in 2018 that effectively banned “unauthorized” religious teachings and required religious groups to report any online activity.
Wang—known for being outspoken—would not comply with Chinese government requirements to register with China’s Religious Affairs Bureau to be recognised by the government, according to Amnesty International.