New York Times International
The New York Times

February 13, 2002

Furor Over Death Sentences of 5 in Chinese Church Group

By ERIK ECKHOLM

BEIJING, Feb. 11 An international campaign has begun on behalf of five leaders of a defiant evangelical Christian group who were given death sentences in December under China's 1999 anti-cult law.

Rights groups abroad cite the death sentences, the first under that law, as evidence of a harsh, continuing crackdown on unauthorized worship. They hope Mr. Bush will press the issue of religious freedom in his meetings here Feb. 21 and 22.

The five are leaders of the South China Church, an underground group that claims 50,000 followers in several provinces of central China. They were convicted in secret trials on what appeared to be dubious charges of rape, assault and sabotaging national security.

The government is also continuing its crackdown on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. The police detained two Western followers of the group on Monday after they staged a protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and expelled them today, saying their protest was aimed at "stirring up trouble."

The two, Jason Loftus, a Canadian, and Levi Browde, an American, were seized after they unfurled a yellow banner accusing Chinese authorities of staging self-immolations by those said to be followers of the group on the square a year earlier.

The government apparently made a move last weekend to try to avoid a confrontation with Mr. Bush on the subject when it released a man who had been convicted of smuggling annotated Bibles to a banned Christian sect. American officials had made it known that Mr. Bush was incensed by the case, in which Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong businessman, had been sentenced to two years in prison.

In the case of the South China Church leaders, the founder, Gong Shengliang, was charged with rape, based on allegations of sexual contact with female followers.

But several of the women said to be victims have issued denials and say they were tortured into making the allegations by the police, who burned their bodies with electric prods. Charges of rape have frequently been used in China to prosecute religious leaders. Mr. Gong's case and those of his condemned colleagues are now on appeal.

"The South China Church is well organized and very evangelistic, very aggressive about sharing the `Good News,' " said Xiqiu Fu, executive director of the Committee for Investigation of Persecution of Religion in China, a rights monitoring group in the United States. "I think this is why the government feels so threatened by it."

In New York on Monday, Mr. Fu's group and others provided new evidence of the current crackdown, releasing a report with copies of what are described as secret Chinese government documents, provided by discontented security officials.

The documents, which scholars said appeared to be genuine, outline campaigns to crush 14 Christian or Buddhist groups that have been labeled cults since 1995, and they include exhortations to provincial and local officials to increase their efforts to infiltrate and destroy such organizations.

China formally allows freedom of worship, but only in regulated churches that join the Communist Party-sponsored "patriotic" associations. While between 13 million and 15 million Protestants have joined the legal Protestant body, tens of millions more Chinese have been attracted to so-called house churches anything from a group of devout neighbors to large, fervent sects that meet illegally and refuse to pledge allegiance to the atheist Communist Party.

Use of cult-related charges has intensified since the banning of Falun Gong, which frightened authorities with its rapid growth and ability to mount large demonstrations.

"This is a new tactic of suppression, under the name of the `rule of law,' " said Mr. Fu, who fled China in 1997 and is a pastor in a Chinese church in Philadelphia and a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary.

According to the report, the police have arrested at least 63 members of the South China Church since last May. Several have been sent to "re- education through labor" camps, others have received prison sentences of anywhere from one year to life and others are awaiting trial.

Mr. Gong, the pastor, and two other leaders, Xu Fuming and Hu Yong, have been sentenced to death, while two other activists, Li Ying, who is Pastor Gong's niece, and Gong Bangkun, have received suspended death sentences, which are often later reduced to life terms.

Among the reasons for designating his group a cult, according to one of the secret documents released today, was Mr. Gong's advocacy of "the evangelization of the whole nation and the Christianization of culture." He referred to the Communist government as "Satan's kingdom," officials complained.

The document accused him of deceiving members by collecting some $40,000 from them for a "Bank of Heaven." Church members say the authorities are misrepresenting the normal, voluntary collection of offerings at church services.

Illustrating the slippery nature of "heresy" and "cult" charges as wielded by the Chinese police, another convicted evangelical leader was accused of having betrayed Christian doctrine by claiming "Christ is I, and I am Christ."

But the leader was probably quoting well-known words of Paul in the Bible: "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me," (Gal. 2:20), according to a statement, also released on Monday, from the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington. This is "a text which can be heard in any American church," the center notes.

As it has pursued the destruction of maverick evangelical groups, the government has provided hints that it may slightly loosen its grip on the legal churches and work to draw more unregistered worshipers into the official fold.

"We cannot use administrative force to eradicate religion," Mr. Jiang said at a conference in December about regulating religion. He called on officials to work toward "strengthening the unity of religious and nonreligious masses."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company