According to the U.S.-based China Aid Association, local authorities had earlier chosen not to prosecute church leaders under harsh anti-cult legislation that could have brought more severe sentences. That seemed to indicate they would continue to allow the church to exist, although reports said police continued to be posted outside church offices.
The association said the sentences were the toughest against unofficial church leaders since Zhang Rongliang received 7.5 years in 2006. It said lawyers for the five had been shown only a fraction of the documents submitted in the case and claimed the verdicts had been predetermined _ a common accusation in politically sensitive cases.
"We strongly condemn this unjust sentence based on trumped-up charges. This case clearly shows the seriously deteriorating situation of religious persecution in China," association President Bob Fu said in a statement.
Officially, China's communist government requires all Protestants to worship in the non-denominational Three-Self Patriotic Movement, while Catholics must meet in the Patriotic Association. Both are beholden to the Religious Affairs bureau, while the degree of tolerance for unregistered churches varies from location to location.
The number of Christians in China is estimated to be about 50 million to 130 million.