Report: China Sentences Bible Smuggler

BEIJING (AP) - A Hong Kong businessman who brought thousands of Bibles to a banned Christian group in China was sentenced Monday to two years in prison, a Hong Kong religious leader said.

Li Guangqiang was convicted of illegally running a business, said the Rev. Chan Kim-kwong, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council. Chan said he learned of the sentence from Chinese sources that he wouldn't identify.

Court officials confirmed that Li was tried Monday in the southeastern city of Fuqing, but they wouldn't disclose the charge or verdict. About 40 people protested outside the courthouse and one was taken away by police, the court said.

The case is awkward for China, which is trying to crush independent religious activity but doesn't want to disrupt a visit next month by President Bush. He publicly expressed concern about Li and asked the U.S. State Department to look into the case. The U.S. Ambassador to China, Clark T. Randt, lobbied for Li in a speech Jan. 21 in Hong Kong, saying China should ``abide by the international norms of behavior.''

Li, 38, was detained last May after bringing 33,080 Bibles into China. He initially was charged under anti-cult laws, which human rights activists feared could carry a death penalty. But a member of Li's church in Hong Kong told The Associated Press on Sunday that his family had been told that the charges had been reduced.

The Bibles were edited by a founder of a Christian group known as the Shouters, according to human rights activists and Christian groups in Hong Kong. That version of the Bible isn't authorized by the Chinese government, which allows only state-monitored worship.

The Shouters are based in southeastern China and has some 500,000 followers. The group was banned in 1995 as a cult.

Communist authorities are trying to stamp out such independent groups, which have grown rapidly in recent years as Chinese search for spiritual support amid jarring social and economic changes.

The best-known group targeted in the crackdown is the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which at one point had millions of followers.

Others range from underground Roman Catholic churches to more unorthodox groups that mix Buddhist, Taoist and other traditional Chinese beliefs.

The leader of another banned Christian group in southeastern China was sentenced to death in December on cult charges, according to human rights groups.