by Alex Buchan
LONDON, January 7 (Compass) — 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 December 18 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 movement have already been jailed.
“This group is in big trouble; the police are really gunning for them,” said a Beijing house church pastor, “but I don’t think they are particularly bad. They may be a bit eccentric in some doctrines, but there is nothing cultish about them.”
Sources in Beijing said that Gong’s reprieve was due “in a significant measure” to the pressure exerted by U.S. Government and Congressional sources, as well as swift publicity by agencies such as Compass Direct and Freedom House.
The year 2002 is expected to be a difficult year for those house churches that refuse to register with the government. Evidence suggests that the multi-million-member Born Again movement has also been singled out for harassment, show trials and multiple jailings of its leaders.
Another serious case cropped up on January 5 when a Hong Kong citizen and trader, Li Guangquiang, was also accused of “using an evil cult to damage a law-based society” [the same charge as Gong’s] for smuggling 33,000 Bibles in April and May 2000 to the “Shouters” — a house church movement prominent in some rural parts of China.
Li was issued the indictment by a court in China’s Fujian province, where he is being held.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy warned he might also be handed a death sentence. The Center speculated that no less than 16 Christian house church movements had been designated as “cults” by the government and could face the same kind of fierce crackdown that the folk-Buddhism movement Falun Gong has experienced during the past two years.
Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.