The Bush administration is expressing concern over the reported prosecution by China of a Hong Kong businessman for allegedly shipping bibles to an underground Christian group on the Chinese mainland.
The State Department says President Bush himself is "deeply concerned" over the prosecution of the Hong Kong businessman, and directed U.S. diplomats to take up the matter with Chinese authorities.
According to a Hong Kong human rights group, businessman Li Guangqiang faces trial later this week for shipping more than 30,000 bibles to the underground Christian organization known as the Shouters, last April and May.
The rights group, the Information Center for Rights and Democracy, says Mr. Li was indicted last month for using a cult to undermine law enforcement, a charge that could bring the death penalty if he is convicted.
Two members of the Christian group are also said to have been indicated in the case, the latest in a crackdown by the Chinese government on unauthorized religious activities.
At a briefing in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials had raised the matter both at the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing and with China's embassy in Washington.
"Reports of a crackdown on religious practitioners in China are deeply troubling," he said. "We call upon China as a member of the international community to meet international standards on freedom of religious expression and freedom of conscience. These are standards embodied in the universal declaration of human rights."
Mr. Boucher, who volunteered the statement to reporters, noted that President Bush had expressed concern about religious freedom in China to Chinese President Jiang Zemin at last October's Pacific Rim summit in Shanghai.
He said the administration is concerned not only about the accused individual but what the case means to the broader issue of Chinese human rights.
Rights groups estimate that China has banned at least 16 Christian groups and prosecuted members using an anti-cult law adopted in 1999 to support its crackdown on the Falun Gong movement.