The forty-six-year-old founder of the "South China" house church movement, Gong Shengliang, was granted a reprieve from his death sentence, which was due to be carried out on Saturday, January 5. Gong was given a stay of execution, relatives said.

High level pressure on the Chinese government was exerted late last week after news broke in early January that he had been given a death sentence in a December 18 secret trial in Hubei province on charges of "complicity in rape" and "leading an evil cult."

Sources in Beijing confirmed that Gong had indeed not been put to death. But the official reason from the Chinese Foreign Ministry was that Gong had been granted a period of several months to appeal the death sentence.

High level sources are confident that Gong will have his death sentence commuted to imprisonment, especially as evidence has come to light that two women whose testimony was used to convict him of rape were forced to provide false versions of events.

The 50,000-member South China movement is one of many spin-offs from the larger Born Again house church movement, whose founder Xu Yongze recently served three years in jail.

The evidence against Gong has not been made public, and some evangelical sources are skeptical that his movement is a cult or that the rape charges are well founded.

The case highlights the question of defining a cult. The Chinese government has not given a proper definition, and their religious rules criminalize any Christian group that refuses to register with the government, making them vulnerable to the cult charge.

The South China group has been labeled a cult, and in the December trial, four other leaders were given death sentences that were suspended for two years. A total of 63 members of the ...

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