A Hong Kong businessman charged with illegally importing Bibles into China has been sentenced to prison. The case attracted international attention and threatened to sour relations between Washington and Beijing just as President Bush gets ready to visit China next month. The sentence could have been much harsher.
A court in China's Fujian province convicted Lai Kwong-keung of "illegal business activities" and ordered him to prison for two years.
The court reduced the charges against Mr. Lai from "distributing cult materials," which human rights advocates feared might have brought a death sentence.
Chinese officials say Mr. Lai brought thousands of copies of a version of the Bible that has not been approved by the Communist Party, which officially is atheist. Mr. Lai's Bibles were a new translation edited by the founder of a Christian group known as the "Shouters", according to religious figures and human rights groups. The Shouters are based in southeastern China and have half a million followers. China banned the group in 1995.
The Chinese government allows only state-monitored religious services, with state-approved clergy. Beijing has been working for several years to crush the Falun Gong spiritual movement and other religious groups it dubs "evil cults."
Frank Lu of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy says that under the circumstances, the relatively light sentence is good news. Mr. Lu says "the two-year sentence may influence other judges not to hand down harsh punishments in similar cases in the future." He says "it means that China's court system is improving." The Hong Kong-based human rights advocate says "resolving the case means it is going to be much less of a problem in U.S.-Chinese relations during President Bush's visit to Beijing next month."
Mr. Bush, a member of the Republican political party, earlier expressed serious concern about the case. Conservative Christians are a key group of Republican supporters in U.S. politics.