(Ezhou, Hubei Province) On December 12, Ezhou City Intermediate People’s Court issued a final verdict in response to Pastor Hao Zhiwei’s appeal. She was sentenced to 8 years on the charge of “fraud” in the first trial. The Court decided to uphold the original verdict. Pastor Hao’s case might be the first case in China where a house church pastor was accused of fraud for preaching the gospel.
ChinaAid translated the case documents which contain the verdict for Hao Zhiwei’s appeal:
The appellant Hao Zhiwei, as well as the defendants Hong Ying and Wan Yuanxiang, fabricated facts and hid truth to defraud and illegally possess others’ money. The amount of money involved is huge and has constituted the crime of fraud. Their illegal gains should be recovered. The defendants, Hong Ying and Wan Yuanxiang, played a minor role in the conspiracy, so their penalty should be reduced. Besides, they truthfully confessed their crime, so it is fine to be lenient to them. Since Hao Zhiwei has returned most of the illegal gains, it is fine to be lenient to her. Regarding Hao Zhiwei and her lawyer’s appeal, the crime’s facts are clear and the evidence is solid and sufficient. Hao is aware that she doesn’t have a pastoral certificate. She fabricated her pastoral identity in order to gain victims’ trust and collect “offering”. She had the intention to purposefully defraud victims. Thus, her appeal and defense are not solid and are not accepted by the Court.
The lawyer pointed out Hao’s family returned the illegal gains on behalf of her and requested to be lenient to her. Upon examination, the original judgement was appropriate because it was based on the facts, nature, and details of the crime. Thus, the request is not valid and has been dismissed. The original judgement is clear and the evidence is solid and sufficient. The sentence is appropriate. The legal procedure is valid. Through deliberation and discussion, we made the following final verdict according to article 236, item 1 of Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China:
The appeal is dismissed and the original judgment is affirmed.
Pastor Hao Zhiwei’s lawyer Mr. Si Weijiang thinks the logic of Ezhou Intermediate People’s Court absurd:
“As long as it is not a Three-Self church, the church cannot be called church; the minister cannot be called pastor, and the church cannot accept a tithe or offering. Otherwise, it is committing fraud. This is definitely wrong, because house churches are established and shepherded according the Bible. The worst case is illegal business operation for lacking of license, but definitely it is not fraud. If the government doesn’t allow the church to exist, you can ban it. However, the church is not committing fraud. From house church’s perspective, many Christians choose not to tell the congregation the church’s illegal status. They thought they are in a gray area. But it’s time to wake up. Anyone could be targeted by the government at any time, especially the ministers of the church. They need to re-evaluate the price of their belief.”
Brief history of Pastor Hao and Egangqiao Church
Pastor Hao Zhiwei is 52 years old. She graduated from South Central Seminary in 2001 and Ezhou’s Three-Self Church offered her the minister’s position due to her excellent preaching. However, she disagreed with the Religious Affairs Bureau’s governance of churches, so they rejected her pastoral certificate application in 2007. Ezhou Three-Self Church shut down and converted into a house church, later called Egangqiao Church. Hao Zhiwei pastored the church for 18 years. According to house church tradition, her church invited three pastors to ordain her as a pastor in 2013. She also encouraged her classmates at South Central Seminary to separate from Three-Self Churches.
In early 2018, the local government brought up a request to demolish and relocate the church building, but church members denied the request. Officials issued Pastor Hao a notice and asked her to cooperate with the project. Pastor Hao’s husband died of liver cancer in 2018. Distraught about her husband’s passing, She could not respond to the notice in time. On July 31, 2019, she was arrested under the charge of ‘fraud.’ Her case was transferred to the Protectorate in September.
The prosecution explained that her case hinged on the fact she preached the gospel without approval from the state-sanctioned church. By accepting a tithe, she fell into suspicion of fraud. Her lawyer Si Weijiang said her church is valid. Paying the pastor conforms to house church tradition. It is groundless to indict house church pastors and preachers on fraud charges for believers’ voluntary tithe and offering. Lawyer Si Weijiang disclosed police tried to induce church believers to provide evidence against pastor Hao.
Pastor Hao’s case might be the first case in China where a house church pastor was accused of fraud for preaching the gospel. After Hao Zhiwei was arrested, many house church pastors were charged with “fraud”. For example Elder Zhang Chunlei of Renai Reformed; Elder Hao Ming and Elder Wu Jiannan of Qingcaodi Church; Pastor Wang Xiaoguang and preacher Yang Rongli of Golden Lampstand Church; preacher Li Jie, preacher Han Xiaodong, and co-worker Wang Qiang of Linfen Covenant House Church.
In August 2019, the Egangqiao church building was demolished. Although the 18-year–old edifice was surrounded by barbed wire, some Christians still crossed and held a worship service.
On February 18, 2022, Pastor Hao wrote a letter to her older son Paul. She told him God’s peace was with her in the prison. She sleeps well every night. She has two children. Her younger son Moses is a middle schooler. He suffers from severe depression. After Paul heard his mother was sentenced to 8 years, he found it difficult to express his complicated feelings. He has not told his younger brother Moses. He wanted him to stay in school. He said: “Whatever the result, I believe God is using this to temper our hearts.”
~Yu Bing, ChinaAid Special Reporter