Hong Kong Bible Arrest Criticized

HONG KONG (AP) - Church groups say the arrest of a Hong Kong businessman for allegedly smuggling thousands of Bibles to underground Chinese Christians highlights the risks of religious involvement in China.

President Bush has expressed concern over the case of Li Guangqiang, who was indicted last month in southeastern China on charges of ``using a cult to undermine the enforcement of the law.''

Human rights groups and Li's associates say he was arrested for smuggling 33,080 copies of a version of the Bible that is not approved for distribution in China and is used by an underground group of charismatic Christians dubbed the ``Shouters'' by the Beijing government.

The group was among those banned in the mid-1990s by the Chinese government, which requires Christians to worship in state-sanctioned, non-denominational Protestant and Catholic churches.

``It's unfortunate that many evangelical churches are classified as cults in China,'' said the Rev. Fung Chi-wood, a human rights activist in Hong Kong.

Religious sensitivities have heightened in China since the government banned the Falun Gong meditation sect in 1999, Fung noted.

Though Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong residents may worship as they please under an autonomy agreement.

China's leaders view religious movements with suspicion, fearing they undermine the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said Thursday that authorities collected 16,000 items classified as ``cult materials'' imported by Li.

``I want to make it clear that in China, in accordance with the constitution, we safeguard the freedom of religion. Many Chinese are Christians and there is no ban on Bibles,'' Sun said.

Foreigners may bring a small number of Bibles into China for personal use and to give as gifts, but bringing in thousands invites trouble, given China's controls on publishing and on the import of foreign publications.

Authorized versions of the Bible - its content unchanged by the Beijing government - are widely sold in China.

Little is known about the 38-year-old Li's religious beliefs or his involvement, if any, with the Shouters. His wife, contacted by phone in Fujian province, said she knew nothing about the Shouters. She declined to give her full name, saying she feared reprisals.

Mrs. Li said she attends a state-sanctioned Christian church occasionally. She and Li married in May, shortly before his May 31 arrest in Fuqing city.