- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

China is cracking down harder than ever on its Christians, sentencing three persons to death in late December for Bible smuggling, operating an unauthorized church and "rape and hooliganism."

However, some China analysts say the rape charges against Gong Shengliang, 46, founder of South China Church in the Hubei Province 600 miles east of Beijing, were elicited from several women under torture.

Mr. Gong's niece, Li Ying, 46, another church leader, also was sentenced to death. Her sentence, which came with a two-year reprieve, may be commuted to life imprisonment.

The other death sentence, also delivered late last month, was handed to Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong resident who has been jailed since May for importing 16,280 Bibles to an underground Christian group called the Shouters. He also is accused of arranging to have another 16,800 Bibles shipped later.

Mr. Li is not believed to be a member of the Shouters but only someone helping to deliver the Bibles on behalf of another Christian group based in Anaheim, Calif.

President Bush was said Monday to be "troubled" by the sentences, which are the first death sentences under the country's new anti-sect provisions, passed by a National Peoples Congress committee in 1999. This law was aimed chiefly at the Falun Gong.

The American government has protested Mr. Li's arrest, but Chinese officials have informed the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that Mr. Li's case is being handled according to Chinese law. Calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment went unreturned.

On Wednesday, Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, said he had approached Chinese officials about releasing the Christians.

"We call upon China as a member of the international community to meet international standards on freedom of religious expression and freedom of conscience," he said. "These are standards embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"The negative impact globally for punishing people for importing Bibles, at least in the Christian world, is so powerful that it is counterproductive," said Mr. Lantos, who is Jewish.

But the Chinese are not in a bargaining mood, said Carol Hamrin, a former China analyst at the State Department who teaches Asian studies at George Mason University.

"The Chinese have become more and more concerned how they are going to manage the growing social tensions there and the growing differences between the haves and have-nots," she said in an interview Wednesday. "This will escalate now they've joined the World Trade Organization. As long as they can keep people isolated from each other, they feel they can manage the country."

But religious groups such as the Shouters and Mr. Gong's 50,000-member church, which have not registered with the government, are threats to Beijing.

"They are going after groups that are getting large in numbers or crossing provincial lines," Mrs. Hamrin said. "When these unregistered church movements get foreign support, like Bibles, training and media coverage, the government feels it really has to crack down on them. So they use the charges of being a sect as a mechanism.

"In Leninist ideology, there are no diverse interest groups, as the Communist party should represent all interests."

She and Mickey Spiegel, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, both have sources saying testimony against Mr. Gong was extracted through torture. He was arrested months ago, but his secret three-day trial was not held until Dec. 18.

The Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China said the attorney for Mr. Gong told the prisoner little could be done because of political pressure.

"I have a family to take care of," the lawyer is said to have told him. "I have a little daughter who needs me." Numerous members of Mr. Gong's church were arrested along with their leader, the committee says. Two members are said to have died under torture, one a mother of a 5-year-old girl.

Rape accusations have been leveled against founders of two religious groups, both of whom were executed in 1995 and 1999. Some China watchers fear this may become a common accusation against church leaders as well.

What drives the government to distraction, Miss Spiegel said, is that many of the unregistered churches are decentralized and have elders instead of clergy. To be licensed by the government, a church must have a pastor.

"The Chinese government has basically no control over them and sees them as very threatening," she says. "Many of the members are hard-working Chinese farmers, and they worship in a way the Chinese government does not like. But they harm no one."

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