BEIJING — Charismatic preacher Gong Shengliang led a popular Christian group that spiraled into violence under persecution by Chinese authorities and the temptations of power.
Now Mr. Gong has suffered an apparent stroke in prison, and his family members are calling for his release.
In an emotional open letter that calls for prayers, family members of Gong Shengliang said prison authorities rebuffed a request that he be given medical parole that they raised after seeing his condition.
Mr. Gong had to be helped by two people to walk to a seat in the prison visiting room in the central city of Wuhan, and "his face was flushed. He drooled and couldn't talk and move his left side," says the letter, dated Dec. 11, the day after the visit.
"I asked him if his spirits were good. He could only say, 'Good, good,'" his sister Gong Shuzhen said last week in Beijing. She, the 60-year-old pastor's two adult daughters and two other followers had come there to petition the Supreme Court and national legislature. "I told him, 'The God we believe in will save you.'"
Prison authorities in Wuhan either declined to comment or did not respond to telephone inquiries on Mr. Gong's case.
His condition marks the latest twist for an energetic preacher whose rise and fall serve as a cautionary example of the rapid spread of Christianity over the past 30 years and the authoritarian government's efforts to stifle it.
An impassioned speaker and effective organizer, Mr. Gong built the following of his South China Church to an estimated 100,000 across the small corn and rice farms of central China before the government closed in.
Its popularity, along with its refusal to join the state-backed Christian church with its ban on proselytizing, brought the South China Church into conflict with the government, which labeled the group a cult in 1995.
As police searches, arrests and other harassment grew more frequent, acolytes attacked believers-turned-informants, committing 16 revenge beatings in all, two involving sulfuric acid being thrown on the victims.
Arrested in 2001, Mr. Gong was convicted of encouraging the beatings, in the very least, and of raping at least two followers.
He denied the charges, though he and other church leaders later acknowledged that some followers had made mistakes. His life sentence was reduced later to 19 years.
As it was in Mr. Gong's heyday, China remains fertile ground for spiritual groups, with decades of fast-paced free-market reforms having discredited communist ideology, loosened social bonds and seen hundreds of millions of people move from country to city.
Though Buddhism and folk religions are the biggest draws, Christianity has grown so quickly that there are not enough well-trained preachers.
Meanwhile, police pressure has left some groups feeling besieged, forcing them deeper underground, where they are out of reach of established churches and more likely to deviate from accepted teachings.
State media reported last week that police detained more than 1,000 members of the heretical sect Eastern Lightning in several provinces and warned that the group has been preaching and leafleting about an impending apocalypse.
The group believes that Christ has been reborn, this time as a woman in China. The Huashang website reported that in Shaanxi province, the group is urging followers to "exterminate the great red dragon" -- a reference to the Communist Party -- "and found a country under the rule of Almighty God."
Mr. Gong's South China Church was rooted more firmly in the evangelical tradition that took off in the United States over the past 100 years and has spread worldwide. His grandmother was converted by Christian missionaries. Gong Dali started preaching as a teenager, taking the name Shengliang, which means "holy light."
Key to his South China Church's success was Mr. Gong's effectiveness in training a corps of preachers to attract more converts. Followers built halls large enough to hold 500 people, conspicuous structures for a forbidden group.