In an attempt to ensure fair treatment of house church leader Gong Shengliang, six jailed female co-workers from the embattled South China Church authorized the release on January 29 of three letters detailing how they were tortured by police into providing false testimony against him.

In a secret December trial, Gong was sentenced to death on charges of rape and arson, and of leading a cult. Although due to be executed on January 5, fifty-year-old Gong was granted permission to appeal his death sentence while on death row after international pressure was applied to Beijing.

The letters were passed to the New York-based Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China. The most recent letter, dated December 11 and signed by 20-year-old Zhang Hongjuan, alleges that she and five other co-workers were tortured mercilessly by police following their arrest in August 2001.

"[The police] put shackles on my hands and feet, and used electric clubs to touch my whole body, especially my chest," Zhang wrote. When she protested her treatment, her interrogators responded, "It's useless to call for help. The Party has given us these fetters and electric clubs for the very purpose of dealing with you."

A 15-year-old house church member, identified only as Fengmiao, had her chest, hands and feet covered in huge blisters from the electric club. Another co-worker, Tongman, was screamed at by the police, "You are not pure. You're a sham. How many times have you slept with Gong?"

Another woman, Wang Lan, passed out several times as a result of severe beatings, the letter said. When police saw she was not eating, they rushed her to a hospital hoping to prove she was pregnant, intending to claim Gong was the father. But the test proved negative. Another woman, Tong Cuijuan, was badly beaten and police allegedly said, "A three-year sentence will be unfair because she cooperated with us very satisfactorily."

"The police tortured us in this ruthless manner for no other purpose but to get 'verbal and material' evidence to accuse and incriminate our teacher [Gong Shengliang]," the letter concluded.

Chinese officials continue to take a tough line on Gong's fate. Responding to criticism in a January 9 editorial in USA Today, Xia Geng, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., claimed Gong was sentenced to death under "Chinese criminal law" on various charges, including the rape of 14 women. No indication has been given that the evidence will be reviewed or even when his appeal process will begin. The relatives to whom the letters were sent fear that the forced rape confessions of the women will still be used against him.

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The Chinese government has defined the South China Church, the huge Born Again movement, and the Local Church or "Shouter" house church movements as "cults." As such, members of these groups are bracing themselves for widespread arrests and severe beatings by police, some of whom earn financial bonuses per number of arrests and convictions.

"Once we have been labeled a cult, government officials can do what they like to us, claiming we are just criminals, and so there is no religious persecution going on," a leader of the Born Again movement said. "It is a cynical ploy to deflect human rights criticism, and so patently false everyone should see through it."

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's previous coverage of this story includes:

Church Leader Gets Reprieve | China's case against Gong Shengliang now on hold. (Jan. 24, 2002)
Chinese House Church Leader Granted Time to Appeal Death Sentence | Sentence 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.

Prior to Gong's arrest, China had been sending signals that it was cutting back on religious persecution. Related Christianity Today articles include:

Free China's Church | The Communist country may ease some religious restrictions, but they still want an apolitical church. (January 3, 2002)
Communists May Recognize Independent Christians | Communist 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 to host the games and issued a press release challenging sponsors to make the event 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 Yahoo full coverage and Christianity Today'sWorld Report.