AP- A Chinese court has secretly executed the leader of a fringe underground Christian sect and 11 followers convicted of murdering members of a rival group, a defense lawyer said Wednesday.
The Intermediate People's Court in the northeastern city of Shuangyashan executed Xu Shuangfu, the charismatic founder of the Three Grades of Servants group, and at least two other leading members last week without notifying their lawyers or family members, said Xu's lawyer, Li Heping.
The executions of Xu and the other leaders, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun, followed an appeals court hearing last month on their convictions and death sentences for the involvement in the killing of 20 members of another group between 2002 and 2004.
Nine other members of the group have also been executed for those killings in recent weeks, Li said.
Xu and Li's lawyers had argued during their trial that prosecutors lacked evidence to link the two to the killings, and the men claimed they had been tortured into confessing.
The case highlighted the fast-paced but chaotic growth of Christian groups in China, which are attracting large numbers of followers but also grappling with repression by police. Xu's Three Grades of Servants had been fighting for converts with the group, Eastern Lightning.
China raised hackles on another religious front Tuesday when it announced that it plans to ordain this week a new bishop in its state-sanctioned Roman Catholic church. The appointment is being done without the consent or involvement of the Vatican.
Wang Renlei, vicar-general of the Xuzhou diocese, has been appointed as a bishop in Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, in eastern China, Liu Bainian, deputy chairman of the government-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, said in an interview.
Chinese ties with the Vatican were broken in 1951 after the communists took power. Worship is allowed only in China's government-controlled churches, but millions belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
China and the Vatican do not have diplomatic relations and a major stumbling block to better ties has been a dispute over who has the power to appoint bishops.
"We cannot wait until China and the Vatican establish relations to select a bishop," Liu said.
Wang's is the third ordination known to have been carried out this year by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association without approval of the Vatican.
The Vatican rejects most government involvement anywhere in the world in the selection of its hierarchy, but it has made exceptions. In Vietnam, bishops are appointed after consultation with the communist government.
The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a China watcher who heads Asia News, a Vatican-affiliated news agency, said the appointment was a "violent gesture against freedom of religion."
"It is a sign of the weakness of the Chinese government and tension in the Chinese society," he said in an email.
Relations are further strained because the Vatican recognizes Taiwan. The communist mainland claims Taiwan as part of its territory and refuses to have relations with any nation that recognizes the self-ruled island's popularly elected government.
Restrictions on religious freedom in China are also an irritant in relations with Washington. A State Department report earlier this month ranked China along with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan among "countries of particular concern" for their lack of religious openness.
China's Foreign Ministry criticized the report as irresponsible and said it was an unjustified intervention into China's internal affairs.
The other Chinese appointments to the state-approved church this year have been Bishops Ma Yinglin in the southwestern city of Kunming and Liu Xinhong in Wuhu in the central province of Anhui.
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