Beijing, Feb 28: A Chinese pastor and his wife who led a Christian congregation that opposed a government campaign to remove crosses atop churches have been sentenced to 14 years and 12 years in prison respectively for illegal activities, including corruption and disturbing social order. Also Read - The Truth Behind Pakistan's JF-17 Fleet And Its Failure

A court in eastern Zhejiang Province on Friday sentenced Bao Guohua and his wife Xing Wenxiang after concluding they had illegally organised churchgoers to petition the government and disturb social order, according to provincial Zhejiang Daily newspaper. Also Read - China Imports 100,000 Tonnes of Rice From India For 1st Time in Decades Amid Ladakh Standoff

The couple also was accused of “tricking” members of its congregation into donating USD 336,000 that was spent on cars and other personal purchases while pretending to lead an ascetic lifestyle, it said. (Also Read: 20 Indian fishermen arrested in Pakistan) Also Read - China’s Unmanned Spacecraft Chang’e 5 Makes Successful Landing on the Moon

The court also sentenced 10 other church members to prison. For the past two years, authorities have removed hundreds of crosses from churches in the province, where there is a large Christian community, saying they violate building codes.

Zhejiang’s religious leaders, whose churches have long been sanctioned by the government, say the attitudes of local authorities have turned sharply negative in recent years as the Christian population grew in number and influence.

Provincial authorities last month opened a corruption probe into the prominent pastor Gu Yuese, who openly spoke out against government’s clampdown on Christian activity.

China Aid, a Texas-based group that has funded the churches efforts to resist the cross removals, said in a blog post Friday that the government prosecuted Bao’s church because of its opposition to cross removals. “The government’s criminal prosecution against the pastor and his believers is actually religious persecution,” the group said.