U.S. Embassy 'Troubled' by China

BEIJING (AP) - The U.S. Embassy said Tuesday it was ``troubled'' by China's arrests of people who gave religious materials to Chinese Christians.

The embassy's statement came a day after a Hong Kong businessman who brought thousands of Bibles to a banned Chinese religious group in May was sentenced to two years in prison.

Lai Kwong-keung was convicted by a court in the southeastern Chinese city of Fuqing of ``illegal operation,'' said a court official, who would give only his surname, Lin. He wouldn't say what that charge meant, but Hong Kong news reports said it referred to running an illegal business.

``We are troubled that persons have been arrested for making religious materials available to Christians in China,'' the U.S. Embassy said in a prepared statement.

``We call upon China to meet international standards on freedom of religious expression and freedom of conscience that are embodied in international human rights instruments.''

The embassy said it was asking for official confirmation of Lai's sentence.

Lai was accused of violating anti-cult laws, which human rights activists feared could carry a death penalty, but was sentenced on a reduced charge, a member of his church told The Associated Press before the trial.

Chinese authorities appeared to be trying to avoid a diplomatic backlash before a visit to Beijing next month by President Bush.

China allows only state-monitored worship and is trying to crush independent groups that it says are a threat to communist rule and public order.

Lai's sentence was much lighter than those imposed on some others in the crackdown. Falun Gong members have been jailed for up to 13 years for organizing meetings of the banned spiritual group.

Lai, also known as Li Guangqiang, was detained last May after bringing 33,080 Bibles into China for a group known as the Shouters. Based in southeastern China, it has some 500,000 members. The group was banned in 1995 as a cult.

Such independent groups have attracted millions of followers as Chinese search for spiritual support amid jarring social and economic changes.

Lai's case threatened to become a political obstacle after Bush expressed concern about him and asked the State Department to look into it.

The visit in late February is to be Bush's first to Beijing as president, and Chinese officials regard it as one of this year's major diplomatic events.

A Christian activist in Hong Kong said Chinese concern about the Bush visit was the reason that Lai's prison term was so short.

``It is not an indication of greater religious tolerance in China,'' said Rose Wu, director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute.

Lai, 38, brought into China Bibles edited by a founder of the Shouters, according to Christian groups in Hong Kong. That version of the Bible isn't authorized by the Chinese government.

Two Shouters members convicted with Lai were sentenced to three years in prison, Hong Kong cable broadcaster I-Cable TV reported. It identified them as Yu Zhudi and Lin Xifu and said all three defendants were fined $18,100 each.

About 40 protesters sang religious songs outside the courthouse in Fuqing during the two-hour trial, said a court spokesman.

A protest leader was detained, while the others left after the trial ended, said the spokesman, who would give only his surname, Zhong.

Also Monday, a Hong Kong human rights organization said two Shouters organizers in the Chinese eastern province of Anhui were indicted on charges of ``using a cult to undermine enforcement of the law.''

Wang Xuexiao and Liu Xishu were charged Friday with recruiting 30 high school and college students as church members, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said.

China bans missionary activity.

Wang, 55, and Liu, 50, were detained at a church meeting held at a farm in Anhui last Aug. 22 with 11 other worshippers. The center gave no information about the others it said were detained.