- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

BEIJING (AP) — The imprisoned founder of an unofficial Chinese Christian church is bedridden and in failing health after being beaten and mistreated, a human rights group said yesterday.

Friends and relatives of Gong Shengliang, who was convicted on charges of rape and assault and is serving a life sentence, said he is passing blood and has lost his hearing, according to the New York-based Human Rights in China.

Mr. Gong is “near death as a result of abusive treatment,” the group said in a statement, quoting what it said was a letter signed by 34 of his friends and relatives. It said Mr. Gong was beaten for professing his faith, refusing to admit guilt and requesting an appeal of his conviction.

China’s Justice Ministry did not immediately respond to requests by telephone and fax for comment.

Mr. Gong was arrested in 2001, 10 years after he founded the South China Church. At one time the church claimed to have 50,000 followers in central China.

Communist authorities allow worship only in state-monitored churches. Millions of believers attend unauthorized services, often in private homes, but are subject to arrest and harassment.

Mr. Gong and four other church leaders were sentenced to death last year under anti-cult laws. But after protests by the U.S. government and religious activists, the sentences were changed to long prison terms.

Mr. Gong was accused of raping several female church members and ordering the beatings of followers who feuded with church leaders, according to documents submitted at his first trial. Supporters said Mr. Gong has denied the charges.

Other activists said last year that Mr. Gong had gone on a hunger strike to protest the confiscation of a written appeal and documents needed for his case.

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