BEIJING (BP)–The leader of an underground Chinese church has been on a hunger strike for nearly a month in protest of his jailers’ confiscation of documents from his prison cell.
Gong Shengliang, the 47-year-old founder of the South China Church, was originally sentenced to death in December 2001 by a court in the Hubei province for various crimes, including “using an evil cult to undermine the enforcement of the law” and raping some of his followers, according to The Washington Post Dec. 6.
As a visit of China’s president to President Bush’s Texas ranch in October approached, Hubei’s highest court threw out the death sentence Sept. 22 along with the cult charges. But in a retrial, Gong was given a life sentence Oct. 10.
Hours before Gong’s scheduled execution in January, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell personally appealed to Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Gong’s behalf. He was granted a reprieve and retrial.
Visitors allowed to see Gong in prison in early March said the cuffs on his wrists and legs “were so tight, and had been on so long, that you could see bones,” a source reported. “His whole face was bruised and swollen, and his mouth and lips were broken. He was in tremendous hunger.”
Gong’s case illustrates the tensions between the more progressive factions within the central government who have sought to modify China’s repressive religious practices and the local authorities in Hubei who are committed to stamping out evangelicals, The Post reported.
Experts say it is most likely the rape charges were thrown in by police or prosecutors to justify a death sentence last December, though Gong may not have committed the offenses.
Gong led a successful evangelical Protestant group in China that reports about 100,000 members. Since its beginning in 1991, the South China Church has dispatched missionaries throughout China and is known to be active in 10 provinces, according to The Post. The church operated a seminary, a publishing house and a bimonthly magazine contrary to Chinese law.
The church leader began his hunger strike Nov. 14 after prison officials confiscated documents that Gong had been using in his prison cell to work on appealing his criminal conviction. They also confiscated a 30,000-word document Gong had been writing to outline the harassment and persecution of the South China Church.
“It is a clear violation of Pastor Gong’s rights to not allow him all the documents he needs to formulate an appeal,” said Todd Nettleton, spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs, an Oklahoma-based interdenominational organization working with Christians worldwide with the goal of helping the suffering church. “We urge the Chinese government to return these documents to Pastor Gong, before his fragile state grows even worse.”
Gong is reportedly weakened and unable to stand.