U.S. Pressure Helped Secure Lenient Sentence For 'Bible Smuggler'

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Pressure from Washington is believed to have played a key role in the decision by Chinese officials to amend charges against three men accused of smuggling Bibles into China, a move which resulted in far lighter sentences than had been expected.

Relatives and associates of the men hope Beijing will now go one step further, perhaps releasing them ahead of a visit by President Bush next month.

A court in southern China's Fujian province Monday sentenced Hong Kong businessman Li Guangqiang to two years' imprisonment for importing more than 16,000 Bibles into the mainland.

Two co-accused mainland Chinese citizens, members of an underground church, were jailed for three years. The three were also fined 150,000 yuan ($18,120) each.

There had been fears Li could face the penalty, but Hong Kong's Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said charges had been amended from "distributing cult publications" to a far less serious one of carrying out "illegal business activities."

The center's Frank Lu said there was little doubt the charges were changed because of Bush's forthcoming visit, and that he would not be surprised if Li was freed altogether ahead of the visit.

Washington earlier expressed concern about the case, and the White House said Bush had taken a personal interest.

The trio was arrested while transporting 16,280 Bibles to an underground church in Fuqing last May. Li was also accused of transporting a further 16,800 Bibles to Fuqing on another occasion.

The court was told that Yu Kit-lun, a former resident of Hong Kong who now works for a California-based group called Living Stream Ministry (LSM), supplied the Bibles. The Bibles cost $12.50 each, but were sold to members of the church for around $2.40 each, it heard.

LSM spokesman Chris Wilde said by phone from Anaheim Tuesday that the organization welcomed the authorities' decision to change the charges faced by the three men.

"We're very hopeful they won't have to serve even these sentences," he said.

He confirmed that Yu Kit-lun, known by the English name of Andrew Yu, worked in the U.S. for LSM, which prints and distributes Bibles around the world.

Wilde expressed hope the development would be a precursor to an opening up to unregistered churches in China, whose followers number in the millions.

With Washington's expression of concern, and Bush's forthcoming visit to Beijing, he said, it was possible the Chinese had decided to "find a course that could allow them to keep their dignity and not look like they're backing down."

Speaking from Hong Kong Tuesday, a friend of Li's and a member of his church said he had heard from Chinese officials that it have been decided to "do a favor" for the three men because of concern raised from abroad.

"I think pressure from outside may have helped make the charges less [serious]," said the friend, who asked not to be identified.

He said Li's wife hoped to apply for medical parole. Li had lost weight and was looking ill, and has had respiratory problems.

Li's health could provide Beijing with a "dignified" way out of the situation ahead of Bush's visit, Prof. Lau Siu-kai of the Chinese University's Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies was quoted Tuesday as saying.

Different version

China only tolerates Christianity within the confines of a "patriotic" church - either the Protestant "Three-Self Movement" church or an authorized Catholic Church whose bishops are not loyal to the Vatican.

Bibles are published in China and available to members of these registered churches. But human rights groups say it is more difficult for members of the large, underground churches to get hold of Bibles.

The Bibles Li was taking into China were New Testaments in what's known as the "Recovery Version" - study Bibles with footnotes and annotations as well as the text itself, explained Wilde of LSM.

Study Bibles are very popular in China, especially in rural areas where Christians may have questions about the text and no easy way of getting them answered.

Earlier this month China's foreign ministry said Li had been smuggling "cult propaganda materials," but Wilde said the Bibles were translated from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, and the footnotes contained nothing political or subversive.

The fact the version was different to the one published by the Chinese authorities was at the root of the problem, a Hong Kong-based newspaper said Tuesday. Because the New Testaments were destined for a group considered a cult, officials had branded the Bibles "cult publications."

Li's group is known in China as the "Shouters" because adherents tend to shout out words of devotion to God. Wilde said the name was a pejorative one used by the authorities, while Li's friend in Hong Kong said the preferred name was the "local church in the name of the city where it is located" - for example, the Local Church in Hong Kong.

Wilde said there was no official affiliation between Living Stream Ministry and the church the Bibles were going to, although there was a "strong spiritual bond" between them.

Living Stream Ministry has its origins in the work of Chinese evangelists Watchman Nee and Witness Lee and the "Local Church" movement. Mainstream churches consider some of its beliefs, particularly its strong opposition to church denominations, aberrant.