Fears Loom Over China Jailing of HK Bible Smuggler

HONG KONG/BEIJING - China's jailing of a Hong Kong businessman for smuggling Bibles to the mainland has sparked deep worry among Christian groups in the territory with close links to their brethren across the border.

Since religious fervor began to mushroom in China during the 1980s, following years of persecution, Hong Kong Christians have ferried goods and cash to poorer affiliates on the mainland -- with little fuss most of the time.

Now, some groups in the former British colony fear such exchanges could spell danger. China this week sentenced Li Guangqiang to two years' in jail for smuggling 33,000 Bibles to an underground Christian group with around 50,000 Chinese followers.

China bans religious activity outside state-backed groups, but millions of faithful worship in underground churches and prayer groups -- at times to the chagrin of hardline officials, but without too many problems if they keep a low profile.

Religious sources in China say Li's case has less to do with the Bible than the group he was delivering them to. The ''Shouters'' were banned in 1983 as a perceived threat to the Communist Party.

Li was originally indicted for ``using an evil cult to damage a law-based society'' -- which on paper carries a maximum of 15 years in jail, but which rights groups had feared could lead to a death sentence.

The case drew protests from foreign religious groups that said China was violating religious freedoms. President Bush expressed deep concern and called on China to meet international standards on freedom of religious expression.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday that Washington was trying to confirm that Li and two mainland Chinese had been sentenced.

The two mainland Chinese were convicted of the same offense and sentenced to three years in jail.


``We are troubled that people have been arrested for making religious materials available to Christians in China and we would expect China to live up to international standards on freedom of religious expression and freedom of conscience,'' Boucher said.

``We have registered concerns and would continue to register our concerns with Chinese authorities in both Washington and Beijing throughout this period since the initial reports.''

Though Beijing rebuffed Bush's call, Chinese prosecutors later reduced Li's charge to ``illegal business operations,'' which carried a maximum of five years' jail.

Li's arrest and conviction have highlighted fears in Hong Kong that mainland laws are too arbitrary and severe, with little recourse for true appeals. Most of the territory's nearly 7 million people are Buddhists or Taoists, but a sizable and at times vocal minority are Christians.

``This should not happen. To send him to jail for smuggling Bibles is too much. It's a restriction on normal activities,'' said Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong.

The case also showed China could use its anti-cult campaign to rein in other religious activity, Lam said.

``This is very dangerous. They can easily designate any Protestant or Catholic group as evil cults in the future and do anything they wish to them,'' Lam told Reuters.


Religious sources and diplomats in Beijing say Li's case also underscores China's fear that groups commanding large followings could threaten the Communist Party and social stability.

Probably the best known is the Falun Gong -- which practices a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese physical exercises. Its followers shocked Beijing with a mass protest around the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in April 1999, when it demanded official recognition of their movement.

That drove the issue of quasi-religious groups to the forefront of President Jiang Zemin's political agenda, spurring a campaign to eliminate so-called cults, religious sources said.

Some 15 ``cults,'' including the Falun Gong, have been banned in China, said Duan Qiming, a senior member of the Anti-Cult Association which often touts the government line.

Beijing outlawed the groups because it believed they were harmful to society and were using religion as a cover, Duan said.

Beijing believed the Shouters' leader, Li Changshu, was politically motivated, Duan said. It objected to the way followers yelled at services.

``The Bibles he brought in are actually reannotated and revised by Li Changshu. They are actually made and used by the Shouters' sect and are evidence of their crimes,'' Duan said.

``The normal, internationally recognized versions of the Bible will not meet with any problems, as long as you keep with customs regulations. These are two separate issues,'' he said.


The Communist Party says it allows freedom of religion as long as believers do not break the law or threaten stability.

Sources with religious groups say persecution of underground Christian groups continues, especially in some hardline provinces.

But they add growing numbers of believers in key cities can now worship quietly with relatively few problems.

Bibles can be taken into China for individual use, but large consignments must be declared, Duan said.

China has published translations of the Bible since 1985, based on versions widely used elsewhere in the world, and copies are available at state-run churches and some bookstores.

``There are a lot of myths that the Bibles are different here than elsewhere, at least in the Catholic tradition,'' said one foreign religious source in Beijing.

``Even overseas, there are many different versions of the Bible.''