By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife) — Three leaders of a controversial religious group were awaiting their execution Friday, July 7, and one house church pastor continued serving a seven and a half years prison term for his Christian activities, co-workers and a religious rights group said.
The US-based China Aid Association (CAA), which fights for the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in China, told BosNewsLife that the Intermediate People's Court of Shuangyashan City in Heilongjiang Province sentenced three men, Xu Shuangfu, 60, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun, 36, to death on murder charges.
Critics doubt the evidences and confessions, as they were allegedly obtained under torture.
The men on death row were involved in the Chinese religious group Three Grades of Servants with an estimated nationwide membership of over half a million. While many of the mainstream Chinese House churches view the group as "doctrinally cultic" CAA said their "basic constitutional rights should be protected."
SUSPENDED DEATH SENTENCES
Another man Ben Zhonghai and two women, Zhang Min, 35 and Zhu Lixin, 37, were given "two-
year suspended death sentences" on the same charge, apparently meaning that they will only be executed if they repeat the alleged crime within that period.
The remaining eleven suspects received 3 to 15 year prison sentences, CAA said.
Prosecutors reportedly claim that Xu Shuangfu also known as Xu Shuangfu and Xu Shengguang) along with sixteen of his top leaders, murdered twenty leaders of the rival Eastern Lightning group, seen as one of the most aggressive Christian sects to emerge from rural China. Xu was also accused of defrauding his congregation of over thirty-two million Yuan ($4 million), CAA said.
News of the death sentences came amid international concern over Chinese house church Pastor Zhang Rongliang who was reportedly sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on June 29.
In published remarks a co-worker said he was not notified of the verdict until this week, Tuesday, July 4.
Zhang is a key leader of the China for Christ house church movement, formerly known as Fangcheng but renamed by Zhang in October 2004. He was arrested by Henan police without charges on December 1 that year. Only months later was he charged with "attaining a passport through cheating" and with "illegal border crossing," investigators say.
Zhang's lawyer, Zheng Laiyou, was not optimistic about an appeal. "It is very clear that the verdict was not made independently by the People's Court," Compass Direct news agency quoted him as saying.
Pastor Zhang's wife, Chen Hongxian, was reportedy shocked at the verdict. "Who would have thought the outcome would be this bad?" Chen was quoted as saying. "It is the Communist Party's court, not the People's Court, that makes the real decision." CAA said it also remained concerned over other leaders of China's rapidly spreading house churches.
On Thursday, July 6, 46-year-old Pastor Wang Shixiu was detained as she was shopping in her village near Langzhong City in central central Sichuan province. "She was arrested by the Public Security Bureau," CAA said. In addition seven of thirty house church leaders arrested during raids on May 28 are still in custody, the group claimed.
It also expressed concern over reports that several house churches have been closed in recent months by Chinese authorities, including in the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province where authorities "launched a campaign to clamp down on house Churches."
One leader was quoted as saying that police "even brandished AK-47 rifles" in a recent raid on his church.
Chinese officials have strongly denied wrongdoing and say Christians are free to worship in the government backed denominations known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council (Protestant) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not recognize the Pope.
Church watchers say however that most of China's estimated 80-million Christians prefer to worship in the underground 'house churches', named this way as they are often held in homes of individual believers. (With BosNewsLife Research and reports from China).
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