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China Gives Smuggler of Bibles Two Years

Religion: Supporters had feared the death penalty for man charged with shipping 33,000 copies of Scripture to mainland.


BEIJING — Chinese authorities on Monday ordered a Hong Kong businessman who carried thousands of Bibles into China to spend two years in prison--a lighter sentence than many had expected.

Hong Kong merchant Li Guangqiang was convicted of "illegal business activities" by a court in the southeastern province of Fujian, relatives and fellow church members said. Two associates of Li from the mainland were sentenced to three-year prison terms, and each of the three was fined the equivalent of $18,000.

The three were detained in May and indicted in December on the far more serious charge of "using a cult to obstruct enforcement of the law."

"We are quite relieved because he could have been sentenced to death" if convicted of cult-related crimes, said one of Li's fellow church members, speaking by phone from Hong Kong on condition of anonymity.

Dozens of Li's supporters protested outside the courthouse, loudly singing Christian songs until the trial ended at midday Monday, church members said.

Hong Kong church and human rights groups welcomed the ruling as a nod to international opinion. But some critics assailed the abrupt switch of indictments as political manipulation of the legal system.

"By changing charges based on political expediency, they're damaging the seriousness of their own laws," said Frank Lu, director of the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy. Lu, however, also said the original charges were misguided.

President Bush, who is scheduled to visit China next month, had expressed concern about the case. But China's Foreign Ministry dismissed outside criticism, calling the case an internal affair and claiming to have "incontrovertible evidence" that the materials Li transported into China were cult publications.

Although China allows printing of the Bible by government-approved publishers, the case suggested to observers that Beijing considers some versions to be cult materials.

The accusations appear related to the fact that the Bibles are used by the Shouters, a Protestant group outlawed by the Chinese government.

According to the official indictment, Li had shipped more than 33,000 copies of the New Testament Recovery Version of the Bible into Fujian province at the request of the two mainland associates, who are Shouters members.

The Anaheim-based Local Church publishes the Recovery Version through its Living Stream Ministry and distributes it in the U.S. through the group Bibles for America.

Li is a member of the Hong Kong branch of the Local Church. Both the Local Church and the Shouters evolved from congregations founded in China during the 1920s by Chinese evangelist Nee Tosheng, also known as Watchman Nee.

China's government has tried to stamp out underground sects that, like the Shouters, reject government management and have links to overseas groups.

Members of Li's congregation disavowed any ties with the Shouters and other Protestant groups on the mainland.

"We have only spiritual relations with other groups. One group that understands the Bible better may guide another group," said Li's fellow church member. "But it's best if we don't have any contact with them at all."

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