A prominent pastor in Beijing's underground Protestant church was sentenced Tuesday to three years in prison for illegally printing and distributing Bibles and other religious books, in a case that has attracted attention from Christian groups in the United States and elsewhere.
The Beijing People's Intermediate Court handed down the sentence immediately after it convicted Cai Zhuohua, 34, of conducting "illegal business practices," said his attorney, Zhang Xingshui. Two co-defendants were also convicted and sentenced to prison, he said.
The sentencing came less than two weeks before President Bush is scheduled to visit China. U.S. diplomats and human rights activists said that the Chinese government may have decided not to release a political prisoner as a symbolic gesture, as it has done in advance of other visits by U.S. presidents.
Cai's sentence, though less than the 10-year maximum he faced, could be seen as an insult to the Bush administration, which has repeatedly highlighted freedom of religion as a top concern in human rights talks with Chinese leaders. U.S. diplomats had also raised concerns about Cai's case with the Chinese authorities, most recently on Monday.
"This is not an acceptable result," Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association, a Christian rights organization based in Midland, Tex., said in a statement. "We urge President Bush to use his upcoming visit to China to address the serious religious persecution in this case."
Darla Jordan, a State Department spokeswoman, urged the Chinese government to review the case, calling the verdict "inconsistent with China's stated desire to improve rule of law."
"China should allow Cai and Chinese of all faiths to express their religion without government interference, intimidation or detention," she said.
Cai's wife, Xiao Yunfei, and her brother, Xiao Gaowen, were also convicted in the case and received two-year and 18-month prison sentences, respectively. A fourth defendant, Cai's sister-in-law, Hu Jinyun, was convicted but spared punishment because she cooperated with police, lawyers said.
The four defendants were led into the courtroom handcuffed and stood silently as a judge announced their sentences, Zhang said. He said they were not permitted to address the court during the 20-minute hearing, and he was unable to speak to Cai before police took him away.
Prosecutors had accused Cai and the others of "illegally seeking profit" by printing hundreds of thousands of Bibles and other Christian tracts. Court papers indicated that police seized more than 237,000 volumes from a warehouse that Cai used, said Jin Xiaoguang, the attorney who represented Cai's brother-in-law.
The Chinese government requires Christians to worship in state-controlled churches, and the official church is the only authorized publisher of Bibles and other religious works, which are produced in strictly controlled quantities and cannot be sold in most bookstores.
Speaking in an interview in July with Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, China's top religious affairs official said Cai illegally published 40 million Bibles and other Christian books and illegally sold 2 million of them.
"Objectively speaking, religion is a breakthrough point for Western anti-China forces to Westernize and split China," said Ye Xiaowen, director of the State Bureau of Religious Affairs. But he said that did not mean all religious problems should be considered "infiltration," adding "there is no so-called persecution of religious people" in China.
Zhang acknowledged his client published Bibles without the government's permission, but denied Cai sold any of them, saying that he distributed them for free.
"Although he didn't get permission from the Bureau of Religious Affairs, this was nonprofit, private proselytizing behavior, and it did no harm to society," Zhang said. "He may have violated regulations, but not criminal law, and I don't think he should have been convicted."