Jailed Chinese Christian on Hunger Strike

Dec 06, 2002 01:48 PM EST

BEIJING (AP) - The imprisoned founder of an unofficial Chinese Christian church banned as a cult has gone on a hunger strike, a U.S.-based activist said Thursday.

Gong Shengliang, who is serving a life sentence on rape and assault charges, is protesting the confiscation of a written appeal and other documents about his case, said activist Bob Fu.

In a message sent to reporters, Fu appealed for U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner to raise Gong's case in human rights talks to be held with Chinese officials this month in Beijing.

Gong was arrested in 2001, ten years after he founded the South China Church. At one time the church claimed some 50,000 followers in central China, mostly in Hubei province.

Communist authorities allow worship only in state-monitored churches. Millions of believers attend unauthorized services, often in private homes, but are subject to arrest and harassment.

Gong and four other church leaders were sentenced to death last year under anti-cult laws. But in a highly unusual step, an appeals court threw out the convictions and ordered a new trial.

Gong and 12 others were convicted of lesser charges at the second trial in October, according to Fu. He said four women were acquitted but sent to two-year terms in a labor camp, which Chinese police are allowed to order without going to court.

According to documents filed at the first trial, Gong was accused of raping several female church members and ordering the beatings of followers who feuded with church leaders. Supporters said Gong denied the charges.

Gong began his hunger strike Nov. 14, said Fu, who is executive director of the Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China. He said Gong already was in poor health due to mistreatment in prison and is now too weak to stand on his own.

A spokesman for the Jingmen City Prison in Hubei, where Gong is reportedly being held, said he had no information about the allegations.

The spokesman refused to say whether Gong was an inmate of the prison. The man gave only his surname, Wang.

In addition to the appeal, the seized documents included a history of Gong's church, Fu said.

He said authorities in Hubei were enraged by an earlier leak of written claims by several women who said they had been tortured into testifying against Gong.

By Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press Writer