US diplomats are expressing concern over Monday's sentencing of a Hong Kong businessman convicted of illegally bringing thousands of bibles into China. A prominent human rights advocate is urging President Bush to put concerns about religious freedom at the top of his agenda during next month's visit to Beijing.
A Chinese court ordered Hong Kong resident Lai Kwong Keung imprisoned for two years, and two mainland Chinese, Yu Zhudi and Lin Xifu, held for three years. The trio were also fined 18,000 dollars each for smuggling thousands of bibles to a banned Christian group in China known as the "Shouters."
A U.S. Embassy spokesman says Washington is "troubled" by the arrest of people trying to bring religious materials to Christians, and he urged China to adhere to international standards allowing freedom of religious expression.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan says China's constitution guarantees religious freedom. But Mr. Kong says "China will continue to crack down on groups it considers illegal cults."
China allows only state-approved worship and has jailed thousands of followers of unapproved religious groups including the Falun Gong spiritual movement and other sects branded "evil cults" by Beijing. Falun Gong officials say hundreds of their followers have died in Chinese custody during the three-year crackdown.
The Executive Director of the group Human Rights in China, Xiao Qiang, says China's wrenching economic and political changes have prompted a growing number of people to search for spiritual answers outside of the official Communist ideology that he calls "bankrupt."
"There is a moral and spiritual vacuum in [Chinese] society and in the context of rapid growing materialism and economic wealth, people are more urgently seeking spirituality and need this kind of community and activities. And that's in conflict with the current Chinese political structure, and that's why it becomes such a human rights issue," Mr. Xiao Qiang said.
In a VOA interview from his office in New York, Xiao Qiang says some Chinese officials think these growing religious organizations are a threat to stability in China. But he says the real danger is the government's over-reaction to millions of people simply trying to meet a basic human need.
Xiao Qiang says religious freedom is a serious human rights problem in China, one that could affect relations between Beijing and Washington.
President Bush has expressed concern about the case of the bible smugglers, but relations between Washington and Beijing have been warming since September when China offered political support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism that followed terrorist attacks on New York.
A newspaper in Hong Kong speculated that those convicted in this case might be released in connection with Mr. Bush's visit, but the Foreign Ministry did not comment on that story.