Genesis of China 'cult' case in O.C

A man faces the death penalty in China for allegedly smuggling more than 32,000 Bibles published by Living Stream Ministry of Anaheim, books the communist government labeled "cult propaganda materials."

The upcoming trial has drawn criticism from President George W. Bush, who plans to visit China in February.

It also has shined a spotlight on Living Stream, one of several Orange County-based organizations that spread the Gospel by smuggling Bibles to countries intolerant of religious freedom.

At the ministry's Anaheim warehouse, Living Stream spokesman Chris Wilde flipped through a book like the ones captured in China -- a black, soft-covered, gold-leafed Chinese text of the New Testament.

"It's the Bible, and that's the bottom line, and we'll never back down from that," Wilde said. "The Bible is the Bible, and it should never be classified as cult material."

Hong Kong businessman Li Guangqiang, 38, was indicted in December for allegedly "using a cult to undermine the enforcement of law," a capital offense. Li allegedly arranged two shipments -- each of more than 16,000 Bibles -- from Hong Kong to a church in Fujian province.

Two members of the church that bought the books were also arrested.

Prosecution papers name Andrew Yu, 51, general manager of Living Stream, as a source of the Bibles, but no charges have been filed, Wilde said. Yu, a native of Hong Kong and a naturalized U.S. citizen who has worked at the ministry's Anaheim offices since 1982, declined an interview request but issued a statement.

"Living Stream Ministry has been, and always will be, committed to the printing and distribution of Bibles throughout the world, and we strongly reject any characterization of the Holy Bible- God's Word as 'cult literature,'" it says. "I am deeply concerned, and have a 'heart-felt' compassion for the ones being detained in China. I appreciate their efforts to distribute the Bible to Christians in China very much."

Each year, Living Stream publishes more than 2.5 million Bibles, tracts and recordings from Anaheim, plus millions of other books through affiliates in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

The distribution network consists of about 3,000 churches outside China, Wilde said.

He declined to detail the Chinese operations because of security concerns. He said the ministry has no official connection with Li.

Living Stream Ministry traces its roots to 1920s China and founders named Watchman Nee and Witness Lee. Nee, who died in 1972, spent the last 20 years of his life in a communist prison. Lee fled China before the communist takeover, settling in Anaheim in 1962 to build up the ministry's publishing and media arm. The not-for-profit company reported revenue of $10.7 million and assets of $62.7 million in 1999, according to tax records.

Orange County hosts several other Bible-smuggling groups, including Open Doors USA and Pray for the Persecuted Church, USA, organizations that often use cloak- and-dagger methods to spread the Gospel.

"People are regularly picked up and dealt with by security forces in a way that doesn't make the press," said Terry Mansfield, president of Open Doors in Santa Ana, which began smuggling Bibles to China in 1981 and delivered about 2 million Bibles, hymnals and other religious texts last year.

"If Christians have the Bible and are strengthened through it, it's a force that can't be contained," Mansfield said.

China has only one authorized Protestant group, the Three Self Patriotic Movement. But underground churches flourish, attracting up to 80 million worshippers among China's 1.3 billion people, according to the U.S. State Department.

Despite some signs of liberalization, members of China's underground churches and other unauthorized organizations, such as the Falun Gong, face surveillance, property confiscation, arrest and torture, according to human-rights groups.

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to China Clark T. Randt said Bush will likely discuss religious persecution, including the trial of the Bible smugglers, during a Feb. 21-22 visit to Beijing.

"We respect China as a great country, but if China wants to be treated as a responsible member of the international community, then it must abide by the international norms of behavior," Randt said.

Chinese officials deny they persecute Christians or other religious groups.

"There is no such case as prohibition of the Bible," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said in response to questions about the Living Stream case. "We have compelling evidence that Li has smuggled and attempted to sell and distribute cult materials in the mainland and was captured at sight by the local Public Security organs."

Chinese officials said the church in Fujian that got the Living Stream Bibles belongs to a Protestant sect called the "Shouters," which was banned in 1996. Wilde said the term "Shouters" is a perjorative name that followers of Living Stream reject.

"We are evangelical, fundamentalist Christians," Wilde said.

The Fujian church issued a statement, published in the Hong Kong-based Ming Pao newspaper, denying it is a cult or anti-government.

"The Church has never and will never strike against the government, but is in perfect submission to the Chinese government," it stated.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning News has reported that Li's trial has been reassigned from a municipal court to a provincial court, a move that observers interpreted as a possible bow to pressure from Washington. Wilde said he hopes it means Li's life will be spared.

"That would be the answer to our prayers," he said.