Report: Imprisoned pastor from unofficial Chinese church in failing health

An imprisoned pastor from a banned Protestant church in China is in failing health and had to be carried into a recent meeting with his family, an overseas church monitoring group said Wednesday.

Gong Shengliang, who founded the South China Church in the early 1990s, is serving a life sentence after being convicted of rape and assault. Supporters say Gong, who is 49, denies the charges.

At a 10-minute prison visit on Monday, Gong was unable to walk on his own and had to be carried into the room by four other inmates, according to the China Aid Association.

Guards at Hongshan Prison in the central city of Wuhan told Gong's sisters that he had hurt himself while washing windows at the prison, said the group, based in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.

When asked directly, Gong looked at the guard and responded: "Yes, I fell," the group said.

Gong's supporters, however, say he has suffered internal bleeding and hearing loss from beatings and other mistreatment.

They say he is being punished for organizing religious activities outside the Communist Party-controlled church and for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

Gong has been reported in poor condition before and there was no way to independently confirm his condition.

However, a prison official reached by telephone at Hongshan Prison said Gong had recently slipped while sweeping floors during a prison work detail and twisted his ankle.

"He's just an ordinary prisoner and it was a simple accident while working," said the man, who identified himself as the director of prison affairs and gave only his surname, Xie.

He said the prison had called a doctor to attend to Gong and had statements from people who witnessed the accident as evidence.

China's Justice Ministry has denied previous claims that Gong was being mistreated, saying last June that such charges had "no basis in reality."

Gong also said he had stopped writing letters to his family because he didn't have the strength, according to the China Aid Association.

Hongshan Prison director Sun Wenquan told one of Gong's sisters that he continued to pray and preach to other prisoners, the group said.

China allows worship only in state-controlled churches. Independent church organizers and worshippers are routinely harassed and detained. Millions of believers defy those rules by attending unauthorized services, often in private homes.

Gong's church at one time claimed to have 50,000 followers in central China and ran its own seminaries and a publishing house.

He was arrested in 2001 and originally sentenced to death along with four other church leaders on charges of running a cult. Those convictions were thrown out, however, and the five were later sentenced to long prison terms for violent crimes.

Ye Xiaowen, the director of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs, renewed the accusations against Gong during a visit to the United States in November.

Ye accused Gong of raping and assaulting people who refused to join his church and seeking to "deceive and control the mentality of female followers."