A Chinese court has convicted the founder of a banned Christian sect and sentenced him to life in prison, just a few days after another court overturned his death sentence on other charges.

A Hong Kong rights group says Gong Shengliang, the founder of the South China Church, was convicted of rape and battery Thursday and given a life sentence.

The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Hong Kong says four other church members were convicted of battery. Two of them received life sentences and two were given 15-year prison terms.

Gong and his co-defendants were arrested by China's Bureau of State Security last April. At their first trial, earlier this year, they were found guilty of using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement, and were sentenced to death.

Earlier this week, a Chinese appeals court overturned that death sentence - an unusual step in China, where the state maintains tight control over religious groups perceived as a threat to its authority.

Frank Lu, a human rights campaigner in Hong Kong, has been following the Gong Shengliang case closely. Mr. Lu says Thursday's verdict indicates just how threatened China feels by any form of organized religion. He also thinks this case will draw the attention of President Bush, when he meets with Chinese President Jiang Zemin this month.

Some observers think the decision to overturn Gong's death sentence was a conciliatory gesture ahead of Mr. Jiang's three-day summit with President Bush. Mr. Jiang goes to the United States on October 22.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhang Qiyue told reporters Thursday that people in China enjoy freedom of religion. She said, however, that Chinese law does not permit anyone to use religion as an excuse to commit crimes.

This week, a report by the U.S. State Department said China restricts religious freedom by confining worship to designated locations, and to organizations approved by the government. Unapproved religious and spiritual groups, the report said, operate under scrutiny and in some cases, harsh repression.