After U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell talked with China's top leader, Jiang Zemin, a Chinese provincial court gave a last-minute reprieve to the founder of a growing evangelical church movement.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry passed the news to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in advance of a congressional delegation visit. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Congressmen Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) had asked the White House and Secretary Powell to intervene.

In December officials charged Gong Shengliang with using an "evil cult" to "undermine the enforcement of the law." The court had also convicted Gong of "crimes of rape and hooliganism."

The case is now on hold. The pastor, 46, founded the South China Church in 1990. It has 50,000 members in eight regions.

Gong was at one time a leader in Peter Xu's Born Again Movement, one of China's largest house church groups. Gong's group has an evangelical statement of faith called "God's Forever and Ever."

In another statement, "South China Thirteen Rules," the church says it aims to "bring the gospel to the whole nation, cultivate a Christlike culture, and create a nationwide church." That nationwide goal attracted government attention.

An August 2001 top-secret Public Security Bureau document used the "Thirteen Rules" to help it decide that the church was a cult. Li Shi-xiong of the New York-based Committee for the Investigation of Persecution of Religion in China provided a copy of that secret document to CT.

Four other South China Church leaders received suspended death sentences that could be commuted to life terms. The death sentences are the first against evangelicals under China's recent restrictions on religious groups using "anti-cult" regulations. At least one South China Church member died under interrogation earlier last year.

The government has conducted a "smash the cults campaign" since July 1999. The primary target is the Falun Gong, which uses physical exercise as a spiritual discipline.

By April 2000, the office of China's highest leaders placed the Born Again Movement on its list of cults. Some months later, officials put Pastor Gong's group on its list of banned cults. Evangelical missionaries told Baptist Press that the government has targeted Pastor Gong because he refuses to register the church, although it operates openly. Baptist Press quotes house church leaders as saying, "If this group is a cult, then we all are cults."

On August 18, 2001, police raided three offices of the South China Church and arrested 14 people. Gong's niece Li Ying, a deputy leader of the church, suffered a severe beating. She later received a suspended death sentence.

Article continues below

Eleven women were stripped, beaten, and punched until they agreed to sign accusations that Pastor Gong had raped them. In phone interviews, relatives of the women described how police extracted the accusations.

"They used electric clubs to touch our relative's whole body, particularly her chest," one relative stated. "They forcefully unbuttoned her shirt while she yelled at the top of her voice. The interrogator told her to shut up: 'It is useless to call for help. The Party has given us electric clubs to use against you. I won't be held accountable even if I strip you naked.'"

An electric club blistered the chest, hands, and feet of one teenager. Relatives said that some older women tried to intervene, but that only infuriated the police officer. He told them, "You mention human rights. I will treat you as subhuman and give you no human rights."

The religion section of China's national police intelligence unit, the National Security and Defense Organization, identified several areas of "illegal activity," including religious publishing, donation collection, and sexual assault. Pastor Gong's original trial was held in secret, so human rights activists are unable to evaluate his case independently.

Li plans to make public 64 more reports of human rights abuses against South China Church members.

"Now that the court [in China] will allow a more thorough examination of Pastor Gong's case," he says, "Christians can push for more thorough legal reform and more prayer."

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's previous coverage of this story includes:

Chinese House Church Leader Granted Time to Appeal Death SentenceSentence likely to be commuted to imprisonment, but church remains in danger. (Jan. 8, 2002)

The State Department's 2001 International Religious Freedom Report on China said the "government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups."

See Christianity Today'sBearing the Cross article on persecution in China.

Freedom House gives an overview of rights in China.

On the day that Gong was to be executed, Chinese officials arrested a Hong Kong businessman for supplying Bibles to an "evil cult." Coverage includes:

Article continues below
Bible smuggler faces death penalty as China cracks down on banned sectSydney Morning Herald (Jan. 7, 2002)
China indicts man for Bible deliveriesThe Washington Post (Jan. 6, 2002)
Chinese court indicts Bible pusher — Associated Press (Jan. 5, 2002)

The recent arrests come as China was sending signals that it was cutting back on religious persecution. Related Christianity Today articles include:

Free China's ChurchThe Communist country may ease some religious restrictions, but they still want an apolitical church. (January 3, 2002)
Communists May Recognize Independent ChristiansCommunist leaders in China are preparing to give formal recognition to unregistered religious groups, but house-church leaders are wary. (November 19, 2001)
Changes in China's Religious Policy Imminent?Several respected house-church leaders consulted about official registration. (November 16, 2001)

The London Guardian and Far Eastern Economic Review also have articles on China's apparent moves to be friendlier to religion.

Human rights groups have voiced strong protest against Beijing's selection to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom statement depicts its deep disappointment with the Olympic decision.

Human Rights Watch answers questions concerning Beijing's selection and issued a press release challenging sponsors to make the games a force of change. The group's 2001 World Report on China said it "showed no signs of easing stringent curbs on basic freedoms."

For more articles on religion in China, see Christianity Today'sWorld Report.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.