A Chinese court has sentenced a Christian pastor to 14 years in jail for embezzlement and other charges, a court official confirmed Monday, after the preacher opposed the forced removal of crosses from churches.

A court in the eastern province of Zhejiang sentenced Bao Guohua for embezzlement, disturbing public order, illegal business operations and concealing information about business accounts, local media have reported.

Christians protest in front of a church in Leqing, Wenzhou as authorities attempted to remove church cross. 

His wife Xing Wenxiang was jailed for 12 years, they said. The two were also fined and their assets seized for appropriating cash and a house which belonged to the church, reports added.

An official at a court in Jinhua city, where the sentencing took place on Thursday, confirmed the sentences to AFP but declined further comment.

The court jailed 10 other people in connection with the case, the Zhejiang Daily newspaper and local television said, but did not give the lengths of their sentences.

Bao and Xing were detained in July last year after they spoke out against forced cross removals in Zhejiang.

Bao and his wife, Xing.

Earlier, the province announced rules requiring crosses for Catholic and Protestant churches to be attached to the front of the building, rather than on the roof, and be no more than a tenth of the building’s height.

China’s officially atheist Communist authorities are wary of any organised movements outside their control, including religious ones, and analysts say controls over such groups have tightened under President Xi Jinping.

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In 2014, Wenzhou city in Zhejiang demolished the large Sanjiang Church, following government declarations it was an illegal structure.

The state-linked China Christian Council estimates the country has around 20 million Christians — excluding Catholics — in official churches supervised by the authorities.

But the true number of worshippers could be higher, at least 40 million to 60 million, according to some estimates, as some pray at “underground” or “house” churches which seek to exist outside government control.

US-based religious rights group China Aid said authorities forced Bao and Xing to dismiss their lawyers before the trial.

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