Pastor Hao Zhiwei (52) of Egangqiao Church in Ezhou city, Hubei province, has been in detention in China since July 2019. She was charged with “fraud” for collecting tithes and offerings from her house church members and spent two and a half years in detention before she was sentenced to eight years in prison in February 2022. In December 2022, Pastor Hao lost her appeal.
LATEST NEWS (December 2022): On 12 December, Ezhou City Intermediate People’s Court issued a final verdict in response to Pastor Hao’s appeal, upholding the original verdict. Her relatives had even returned the amount of the offerings to church members in the hope of obtaining a lighter sentence for the pastor, but this failed to persuade the court and her eight-year sentence stands.
Hao Zhiwei graduated from Zhongnan Theological Seminary in 2001, and in 2003 Ezhou’s government-approved Three-Self Church offered her the minister’s position due to her excellent preaching. Her pastor’s licence was revoked in 2007, however, because she disagreed with the Religion Bureau’s governance of churches. The Ezhou Three-Self Church was shut down and became a house church, later named Egangqiao Church, and in 2013 Hao Zhiwei was ordained as a pastor by three other pastors in accordance with house church tradition.
In December 2016, the local government banned Egangqiao Church for “organising religious activities without permission”. Following a sustained campaign by state authorities against the church (see “Escalation of persecution” below), the local government ordered in early 2018 that its building be demolished – the congregation refused.
In July 2019, the local District Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau issued a notice stating that the church building must be demolished because it was too close to the Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation power plant in Egang, a location the notice described as “very dangerous”. The notice stated, “It is our hope that Ms Hao Zhiwei will take the safety of religious people’s lives and possessions into consideration and understand, support, and cooperate with the administrative decision given by the relevant department of government.”
The authorities surrounded the building with barbed wire in preparation for demolition, but church members went through the wire and worshipped inside. However, Pastor Hao did not communicate with the bureau at the time because she was struggling with grief, having lost her husband to liver cancer in 2018. She did not go to church for a year.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials criminally detained Pastor Hao on 31 July 2019 on a charge of suspected fraud, and in August 2019 CCP officials demolished the church building. The pastor was officially arrested on 6 September 2019.
Four months after detaining Pastor Hao, officials charged her with fraud for collecting 2.24 million Yuan (€310,000) in tithes and offerings from her house church members. The Chinese government claimed that her action in collecting the money amounted to fraud due to her illegal status as a preacher in a house church, despite the fact that the tithes were tracked and verified by others in the church. Pastor Hao’s indictment notice described her as “an illegitimate Christian preacher” and said collections were made “without the approval of the Ezhou Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant churches and the [China] Christian Council of Ezhou”.
Two church workers, Hong Ying and Wang Yuanxiang, were detained with the pastor on fraud charges but were released because they “confessed”. Pastor Hao refused to plead guilty. Her trial was originally scheduled for January 2020, then August 2020 and was postponed on several occasions due to Covid-19. In Autumn 2020, Pastor Hao’s son Paul commented, “The government is indefinitely postponing the trial as they continue to look for evidence so they can frame my mother by building a fraud case against her that never existed in the first place.”
Pastor Hao’s lawyer Si Weijiang said he believed her case was probably the first such case in China and expressed concern that a conviction could set a precedent for CCP authorities to use charges of financial irregularities to prosecute other house church leaders. He stated, “The case is set to have a far-reaching legal impact that could see more house church pastors like Pastor Hao come under more legal scrutiny on top of the existing administrative regulations over religious affairs.”
In January 2020, China Aid published an article written by the lawyer in which he explained, “According to the indictment, Preacher Hao’s charge has a minimum sentence of ten years, which exceeds the verdict of the case in Chengdu.” (This refers to Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church, who is serving a nine-year sentence on false charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business operations”.) “According to the indictment, all the donations are now considered fraudulent because the pastor’s ordination is illegal, and the church lacks official approval… In my opinion, the allegations that the donations were fraudulently obtained by the pastor of the unofficial church are totally groundless.”
On 11 February 2022, Echeng District Court sentenced Pastor Hao to eight years in prison for “fraud” and on 12 December 2022 she lost her appeal.
The pastor is suffering from poor health in prison. She has had acute pancreatitis on at least four occasions, which nearly killed her, and has lost over 20 kg in weight. Her faith has remained strong, according to lawyer Si Weijiang, who commented that the pastor had “peace in her heart”.
In January 2023 it was reported that Pastor Hao has been subjected to so-called “special treatment,” whereby some prisoners in the same room are tasked with monitoring her and reporting what she says and does to guards.
Escalation of persecution
Following the 2016 banning of Egangqiao Church, in January 2017 officials from the local religious affairs, public security, and urban management bureaus broke into a Bible study and took six Christian women including Pastor Hao into police custody. They accused them of holding illegal religious meetings and confiscated church property. Pastor Hao’s husband Zhang Youwu told China Aid that the religious affairs bureau posted a notice accusing them of illegally gathering and said officers beat up those in attendance. Each of the women was detained for between ten and 15 days on the charge of “organising unauthorised religious activities“; Pastor Hao was placed under administrative detention for 15 days.
The church began to meet outdoors every Tuesday, and each week government officials reportedly attacked those gathered. On 11 July 2017, officials threw firecrackers at the Christians and four church members received five-to-seven day administrative detention sentences. On 8 August 2017, a Christian woman was injured when the authorities hurled mud at the congregation and threatened to fling paint and excrement at them the next week. It is not known whether they acted on this threat.
On 22 August 2017, a group of men described as “hooligans” by local Christians arrived at an outdoor service and beat those gathered, while government officials reportedly drove up and down the street filming the event.
Pastor Hao’s husband Zhang Youwu (pictured), known as Pastor Zhang, died of liver cancer in 2018. In late 2021, Pastor Hao’s lawyer Si Weijiang reported that her younger son Moses (15) was suffering from severe depression, had dropped out of school and had begun locking himself in a room. Her older son Paul (19) had been taking care of Moses until he went away to university in Zhejiang province in 2020 – he said that while he was staying on campus his brother lived at home in Ezhou with a part-time domestic helper and was eating one meal a day, cooked for him by women in the church. Both of the boys’ paternal grandparents and one maternal grandparent have died, with the remaining one reportedly suffering ill health.
Paul returned home during the winter break in February 2022 and talked with Moses, who agreed to go back to school. In January 2023 it was reported that care from church members is limited because they are all facing pressure and threats.
2001 Hao Zhiwei graduated from South Central Seminary.
2003 She was appointed minister of Ezhou’s government-approved Three-Self Church.
2007 Hao Zhiwei’s pastor’s licence was revoked because she disagreed with the Religion Bureau’s governance of churches.
16 March 2013 She was ordained as a pastor in accordance with house church tradition.
December 2016 The local government banned Egangqiao Church for “organising religious activities without permission” and began a campaign against the church.
10 January 2017 Officials raided a Bible study held by Egangqiao Church and detained six women for between ten and 15 days for “organising unauthorised religious activities”. Pastor Hao was placed under administrative detention for 15 days.
18 July 2019 The local religious affairs department issued a notice stating that the church building must be demolished.
31 July 2019 CCP officials detained Pastor Hao.
August 2019 CCP officials demolished the church building.
6 September 2019 Pastor Hao was officially arrested.
11 February 2022 Echeng District Court sentenced Pastor Hao to eight years in prison for “fraud”. Her lawyer Si Weijiang visited her in prison and she decided to appeal.
12 December 2022 Ezhou City Intermediate People’s Court issued a final verdict in response to Pastor Hao’s appeal, upholding the original verdict. Her relatives had even returned the amount of the offerings to church members in the hope of obtaining a lighter sentence, but this failed to persuade the court.
Read more about the persecution of Chinese Christians in Church in Chains’ China Country Profile.
(Bitter Winter, China Aid, Criminial Indictment [Echeng District People’s Procuratorate 20 December 2019], International Christian Concern, Notice [Echeng District Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau 18 July 2019], South China Morning Post)