by Paul Davenport
HONG KONG, January 2 (Compass) -- The founder of the South China Church was sentenced to death after a secret trial on December 18, a Hong Kong-based human rights group said.
Gong Shengliang, 46, was convicted and sentenced by the Jingmen City Intermediate Court in China's central Hubei province. He was accused of "using a cult to undermine the enforcement of the law" and of "complicity in rape," according to the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.
Gong was also accused of injuring 14 people during church rituals involving exorcism. His niece, Li Ying, 36, was also sentenced to death, but the sentence was suspended for two years.
Fifteen other members of the church were sentenced to prison for periods ranging from two years to life. All have maintained their innocence and are appealing. The sentences come just after a major Communist Party conference on religious affairs held in early December that called for tightened control of all religions.
The South China Church is described as having about 50,000 members scattered across 10 Chinese provinces. The Ministry of Public Security reportedly added the South China Church to a list of banned religious sects in April last year, press reports said.
Materials made available to Compass Direct, however, seem to indicate that the South China Church is not a heretical cult but an "evangelical, fundamentalist" Christian church, as the Associated Press stated on December 31.
China watchers said the case has several worrying features.
First, the rape accusation is similar to that made against the founder of the Established King cult, Wu Yangming, who was executed in 1995, and against founder of the Lord God cult, Liu Jiaguo, who was executed in 1999.
Second, with the trial held in secret, it is difficult to verify the truth of the accusations made against Gong. Historically, once a religious group is labeled a "cult" by the Chinese government, certain stereotyped accusations are made against the leaders. In the cases of Wu and Liu, some detailed proof of their guilt was published. But no information has been made available in Gong's case.
On April 15, 2000, the South China Church published an open invitation to Christian workers in China and overseas to attend a conference in central China.
The invitation was issued to "all those pastors, elders and evangelists of every denomination within China who hold the Bible as their ultimate authority, as well as those who are concerned overseas for the Chinese church (cults and heresies excluded)."
The spirit of openness in this invitation seems to be very different from the narrow secretiveness of a heretical cult.
The aim of the conference was "to study the 2,000 year history of the church and the reasons for its growth and decline, as well as the creeds laid down by the great apologists of the church" and "study the history of the church in China, especially why the gospel failed to put down roots several times in China, as well as the reasons for the weakness or flourishing of the gospel in every region of China today."
The conference also planned to determine "how every denomination in China could seek unity in the truth based on the Bible as the authority and how to supply the urgent needs of believers in every area of China for pastoral training."
The conference invitation closed with the following prayer:
"Lord! Please bless this conference that it may be a turning point in Chinese history, based on biblical truth, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in the unity and love of Christ. May You rectify the mistakes of every church in China and point out the way for man to come to God, and for everyone to be united in the truth. We pray for everyone chosen by God before time to salvation in distant mountains and villages -- for the poor and lowest classes of people. May the very last prodigal return home. And we pray for the revival of the gospel in China, and the invigoration of the entire body of Christ. May God's plan of salvation be completed and may we be united in one love and in one Spirit!"
Compass was unable to confirm whether this conference was ever held, but the above evidence reads very differently from the crude ravings of the Established King and Lord God cults. A cover letter to the conference invitation states that the South China Church is based in Hubei province but also has churches in Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Hebei, Henan, Shandong and Sichuan provinces. In each province there are "over one hundred local churches," the letter said.
The letter also stated that the church has over 300 full-time evangelists ranging in age from the teens to over 30 years, who are mainly from poor, rural areas and have only primary or lower middle school education. The letter claimed that between 1998 and 2000 the church had published 30 editions of a [presumably clandestine] Christian magazine called "Salvation and China."
Even if the rape charge against Gong is substantiated, China watchers say this is no reason to persecute an entire church of tens of thousands of people by arresting its leaders and closing down its meetings. It seems China's unregistered house church Christians have every right to fear being wrongly labeled as cult members.
Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.