Beijing, Jan. 9--China acknowledged Tuesday that it jailed a Hong Kong businessman who brought thousands of Bibles into the country, but it indicated the man was arrested for violating anti-cult laws rather than illegally importing and distributing Bibles. Li Guangqiang, 38, is a member of an underground fundamentalist Christian movement called the Shouters, and he might face the death penalty if convicted, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Religious practices and the publishing of Bibles are strictly controlled by China's communist government, which permits Christian churches to operate only if they register and pledge their loyalty to the state. Underground Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and practitioners routinely face harassment and arrest for disturbing public order or other charges. Fringe movements such as Falun Gong or the Shouters have been attacked as "evil cults."

The government has not released details of the charges against Li and two other men, and criminal proceedings are routinely held in secret, making it impossible to assess the scope and focus of the case. But a foreign ministry spokesman, Sun Yuxi, suggested the trial was at least in part about the status of the Shouters.

Sun said the books that were imported and confiscated were "cult publications," but it wasn't clear if he was referring to the Bibles. "It's not a case of smuggling Bibles," Sun said. "The Bibles were a pretext. They smuggled a large amount of cult publications."

President Bush has expressed concern over Li's case, prompting the State Department to seek additional information from Chinese authorities. Sun said the case was being handled according to Chinese law and "no other country should interfere in the independence of China's judicial system."

According to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, Li brought 16,800 copies of the Shouters' "New Testament Recovery Version" from Hong Kong to a Fujian province in April and was arrested when he tried to transport 16,280 more copies in May. He was charged with "using a cult to undermine the enforcement of the law." The two other men, who sought Li's help in importing the books, also face trial, which is scheduled to take place this week or next.

The Bible was translated and edited by the late Li Changshou, identified by the center and Western governments as a leader of the Shouters sect. The movement, which developed in China and South Korea at least 30 years ago and is believed to have up to 500,000 members. It gets its name from its practice of worshipping by shouting out prayers.

The Shouters have been targeted by China as an anti-government group since the early 1980s and were banned in 1995. According to a 1994 report by Human Rights Watch-Asia, the Shouters were targeted as a cult because their strong evangelical belief in the second coming of Christ challenged the idea of a future communist utopia.

China's communist leadership has always viewed religion as a rival authority that needs to be controlled or suppressed.

It is particularly suspicious of Christianity because it is a foreign influence. Falun Gong was targeted because it proved to be defiant and well organized. China permits Protestant and Catholic churches to operate if they submit to state control and preach a state-sanctioned liturgy. Churches are required to support government policies and cannot teach unapproved theology such as the second coming.

There are more than 15 million members of state-approved churches, and there have been more than 25 million authorized copies of the Bible distributed in China since 1987. Anyone can walk into a church in Beijing and buy a copy for about $6. But there are many more Christians in China-more than 30 million-who worship in unofficial, or "house" churches, and risk persecution and arrest because they don't want to answer to the government. The frequency and degree of harassment varies widely across the country, and there are some unofficial churches that operate.

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