BEIJING — Chinese authorities have released the pastor of the country’s largest Protestant mega-church after he was detained for more than two months following protests against the government’s removal of crosses from churches, a church worker said Friday.
Despite gaining his freedom, Joseph Gu Yuese has been confined to his home since his March 31 release and barred from meeting or communicating with others without permission, according to a U.S.-based Christian group.
Gu was formally arrested on Feb. 6 on embezzlement charges that supporters said were invented to punish him for public opposing a campaign by officials in the eastern province of Zhejiang to forcibly remove hundreds of rooftop crosses from churches.
Gu was also banned from the pulpit of his enormous Chongyi Church and removed as head of the provincial state-sanctioned Protestant church association, despite his case not having gone to trial.
A man who answered the phone at church offices in the Zhejiang provincial capital of Hangzhou confirmed that Gu had been released but offered few details.
“He is out now and let’s pray for him,” said the man, who declined to give his name. Asked whether Gu had returned to work at the church, the man said: “That is impossible.”
China’s officially atheistic communist government has long had an uneasy relationship with Christianity, and Zhejiang has led the charge over the past two years in tearing down church crosses and other outward symbols of the Christian faith, saying they violated building codes.
Critics say that’s a sign of how the rapid growth of Christian groups has made the ruling Communist Party nervous. The dispute has been complicated by growing contacts between Chinese churches and overseas supporters at a time of increased government scrutiny toward what it considers foreign meddling in domestic issues.
While authorities have long targeted unsanctioned “house churches,” the latest crackdown is notable because it involves members of the usually compliant government-sanctioned religious bodies.
China Aid, which is based in Midland, Texas, said it appeared Gu may have been released without trial to prevent his detention throwing a shadow over a meeting between the U.S. and Chinese presidents earlier this month.
“All of the people currently apprehended should be released,” China Aid founder Bob Fu said in a news release, referring to others held or sentenced amid the Zhejiang crackdown.