New York

The deputy chief of an underground network of Protestant churches who was arrested in China last year and sent to a labor camp has been “unexpectedly” released, Christian rights organizations said on Jan. 24.

Pastor Shi Enhao was released on Jan. 20 after serving about six months of the two-year sentence imposed on him in July 2011, ChinaAid Association, a non-profit body monitoring the state of the church in communist China, said.

Shi, vice-president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, a network of Protestant churches, had been accused of “holding illegal meetings and organizing illegal venues for religious meetings.”

The release could have been due to international pressure, ChinaAid said. China officially sanctions certain Christian groups, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, but many Christians worship clandestinely in so-called house churches.

The move was welcomed by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which urged the Chinese authorities to free others such as ethnic Christian leader Alimujiang Yimiti, who was given a 15-year sentence in 2011, Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese human rights lawyer whose detention triggered international condemnation last year and Fan Yafeng who heads the Shengshan House Church.

“While many house churches in China operate with relative freedom, there continue to be cases of arrest, disappearance, harassment and confiscation of property among house church Christians,” CSW said.

In 2011 there was a rise in crackdown on dissent that targeted lawyers, writers, religious leaders, Tibetans and the ethnic Uyghur community.

The pastor’s release came after China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs this month designated religious spokespersons to brief the media, answer queries online and “enhance understanding of religious matters.”

The nine officials have been chosen from six religious associations, including the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, the Buddhist Association of China, the Taoist Association and the Chinese Islamic Association.