BEIJING — The pastor of a Christian church in central China was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Friday in what supporters say is a crackdown aimed at curbing fast-growing religious activity, his lawyer said.

Zhang Shaojie of the Nanle County Christian Church in Henan province was convicted of fraud and of gathering crowds to disturb public order, according to lawyer Yang Xingquan.

Zhang’s church is sanctioned by the Communist government, which allows worship only in state-monitored groups, but has been involved in a dispute with local authorities over land for a new building.

By official estimates, China has 23 million Christians. The country also has a large number of unsanctioned underground, or home, churches that have attracted millions of worshippers and have been targeted in repeated crackdowns. A report by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center said there were likely 67 million Christians in the country in 2010, including Protestants and Catholics.

In the eastern Zhejiang province, where Christianity has been particularly popular, local governments have been tearing down crosses on Christian churches, even if they have been officially sanctioned, on the grounds that they lack construction permits.

The crackdown on Christian churches could be an extension of an ongoing campaign to suppress the growth of civil society in the country, said Prof. Fenggang Yang, a sociologist and expert on religion in China at Purdue University.


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