Spared death, Chinese house church leader wants public trial this time

Tuesday, August 6, 2002

by Staff
March 28, 2002

WUHAN, China (BP)--Attorneys for a Chinese Christian leader who barely escaped execution in January want his retrial to be conducted in public this time, according to sources close to the case.

Gong Shengliang, 46, leader of the South China Church, was sentenced to death after a secret trial in December before a court in Wuhan, China. The charges: rape and operating an "evil cult to undermine law enforcement."

The defendants reportedly had no legal representation during the trial.

Gong's supporters contend the charges are false and based on forced testimony. They say the prosecution is part of a brutal crackdown on 16 "sects" the Chinese government has decided to suppress.

The banned sects include the controversial Falun Gong meditation movement, but also more than 10 evangelical Christian house church networks -- including Gong's South China Church.

Hours before Gong's scheduled execution in January, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell personally appealed to Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Gong's behalf. Gong and co-defendant Li Ying, also sentenced to death with a two-year delay, were granted a reprieve and retrial. Also granted retrial were 14 other members of the group, who had received prison terms ranging from two to 20 years.

A Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington, D.C., contacted in late March, could not confirm when a new trial for Gong and his co- defendants might begin. Sources closely connected to Gong's house church movement, however, said a second closed-door tribunal had been scheduled for mid-March, but that his lawyers are "fighting against a closed trial."

"No (Chinese) lawyers dared to touch this case," said one insider. "They didn't get any defense at all. And they were very, very badly treated in prison as they awaited execution."

This time, the Christians reportedly have a 15-member Chinese defense team. They will be convicted again, sources expect, since guilty verdicts usually are a foregone conclusion in Chinese courts. But their defenders hope they will receive reduced prison terms.

Visitors allowed to see Gong in prison in early March said the cuffs on his wrists and legs "were so tight, and had been on so long, that you could see bones," a source reported. "His whole face was bruised and swollen, and his mouth and lips were broken. He was in tremendous hunger."

Female church members who signed statements that they were sexually assaulted by Gong were tortured and psychologically traumatized while in custody, the source added.

"That accusation is completely false," he said. "These girls are so confused they don't even know their own names. And the most private parts of their bodies are blistered and bloody; the skin has been burned away with electric batons."

Several recanted their testimony against Gong after the first trial and claimed they had been pressured to accuse him, according to letters sent to the West.

The South China Church, started by Gong more than a decade ago in Hubei province, is relatively small compared to other Christian house church groups that count millions of followers each. The South China Church reportedly has about 100,000 believers in 10 provinces.

The movement's size may be one reason it has been especially targeted.

"It's one of the smallest networks, so it was easy to get the net around them," the source said. "Also, the government wanted to see what the reaction in the West would be. I think they were taken a little bit by surprise" by the international furor over the death sentences.

"That's why we want to keep this case visible, because it's not over."

Reports have circulated in recent months that Chinese authorities are considering a more lenient approach to the rapidly growing house church movements.

Such reports, however, come in the midst of the harshest crackdown on Chinese house churches in years. Hundreds of believers have been rounded up, beaten or harassed. Several have died in custody or after police beatings. Scores of house church leaders have been imprisoned or forced into hiding and constant movement to avoid arrest. Homes of believers and churches have been destroyed and their assets confiscated.

Secret government documents obtained and released by the New York-based Center for Religious Freedom prescribe such actions as part of a systematic campaign to "smash" house church networks. They show that China "remains determined to eradicate all religion it cannot control," according to center director Nina Shea.

Many Christians had expected China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and winning bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics would open a new age of increasing religious freedom. Yet observers note the opposite seems to be occurring.

Chinese communist leaders are increasingly alarmed about the mushrooming growth of the house churches, observers say. They also are infuriated that house church leaders want to send thousands of missionaries to other countries.

"Any organized group that is not under government control is a threat to them," said one Christian worker. "They look at Eastern Europe and see that Christianity played a significant role in the downfall of communism, and they say, 'That's not going to happen to us.'

"It also may have something to do with generational transition as (President) Jiang is starting to phase out and wanting to leave a legacy. Plus, they already got the Olympic bid. They got the WTO entry. What's holding them back now? There's nothing they have to be 'good' for. The pressure's off."

The Christian prisoners and their families, meanwhile, are appealing for prayer.

"They are begging the Christian world to pray for them," a source said. "They say, 'If this is what God wants to happen, we are willing. But if this is Satan trying to stop the expansion of God's kingdom, then pray that we may be strong.'"

2002 Copyright, Baptist Press. Used with Permission.