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BosNewsLife (04/07/06) – Chinese house churches on Friday, April 7, were anxiously awaiting answers from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which has been asked to help free an influential ailing, and allegedly tortured, pastor from prison.

Pastor Gong Shengliang’s family members and legal representatives also filed an appeal for medical parole to the Chinese prison authorities “due to pastor Gong’s poor health,” said the China Aid Association (CAA), a US-based religious rights group with close ties to allegedly persecuted Chinese Christians.

Gong, an evangelical Christian pastor, was imprisoned in 2001 for his religious beliefs and leadership at the South China Church , an ‘underground’ Evangelical denomination of China with tens of thousands of members.

China ‘s authorities have denied they do not respect Gong’s Christian beliefs saying he led a “cult” and committed crimes. In 2002, the Jingmen Municipal Intermediate Court of Hubei Province in southern China sentenced Pastor Gong to death on assault, rape, and cult charges.

But Western governments and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, denounced the verdict, saying charges against the pastor were based on shaky evidence and confessions under torture. The death sentence was later commuted to life in prison, where human rights watchers claim he receives little to no medical attention.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VIOLATIONS

In the petition to the UN, dated March 31, 2006, supporters cite violations of Article 18 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which guarantees and protects religious freedom.

China ‘s constitution says “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief,” and Beijing reportedly backed up that statement in 1997, saying that “in China , no one is to be punished due to their religious belief”.

The petition also details the alleged torture of Pastor Gong and other members of the South China Church, including sexual abuse, use of electrical rods to administer shocks, burning of skin, pulling of hair, torture with handcuffs and shackles, denial of basic necessities, physical beatings, invasive medical procedures, and death threats.

In addition it includes the “original signatures of Church members who were tortured into making false accusations against Pastor Gong,” added CAA. “Notably, every woman whom the Chinese government cited as accusing Pastor Gong of rape recanted the accusation, saying that they were made under duress of torture,”the organization claimed.

“CALLING FOR JUSTICE”

“We have been calling for justice and a fair trial for this case for a long time, said CAA President Bob Fu, a former house church pastor in China who fled to the United States , in a message to BosNewsLife. “We urge the international community to continue to press the Chinese government to sincerely honor her pledge for true religious freedom and rule of law in China ,” he added.

Pastor Gong is among at least hundreds of Christians being held for their faith, although some suggest the actual figure may be much higher, church leaders and human rights groups say. ” China ‘s new generation of leaders are trying to consolidate control of the country as it goes through rapid social and economic changes,” said Jubilee Campaign, another religious rights group recently.

It suggested that “Communists feel threatened by any popular ideology which is different from their own.” China ‘s growing Christian population, especially those who refuse to worship in the tightly regulated state-registered churches, are perceived as such a threat, analysts say.

Most of China ‘s estimated 80 million Christians worship in ‘house churches,’ a reference to worship services outside official buildings or in Christian homes. American President George W. Bush and members of the US Congress have come under pressure to raise the issue of religious persecution when they meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao on April 20 in Washington DC .