07/06/2005, 00.00
CHINA

Underground Protestant clergyman on trial

His trial is set to start tomorrow. The clergyman is accused of "illegal business practices" because he kept Bibles in a cache with the intention of giving them free to the faithful.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – The trail of a Protestant clergyman, his wife and two other church members arrested months ago for owning 200,000 Bibles found in a cache at his church is set to start tomorrow, court officials and lawyers said.

Rev Cai Zhuohua was taken into custody in central Beijing in September 2004 by three plainclothes policemen who tied his hands and feet and took him away him in a van.

His wife Xiao Yunfei was arrested on the 27th of the same month when she was with her brother Xiao Gaowen and sister-in-law Hu Jinyun.

Reverend Cai's relatives had sought refuge in Hunan province but agents from Beijing were able to track them down and arrest them.

Defence attorney Gao Zhisheng revealed that the four, who have been in prison for the past ten months, are accused of "illegal business practices" because of the large number of Bibles and Christian religious books found in their church.

"I am not too optimistic over the verdict. It is impossible for them to be found innocent, but I have confidence to strive for lighter sentences," Gao said.

"The books in no way were going to enter the market, they were to be given away free of charge to the church members. Trade transactions, whether legal or illegal, are not a question here," Gao said.

"The court should not be used to oppress religion and religious freedoms, but the authorities are always using economics as a pretext to deal with religious and political issues," he added. "This happens far too much in China, where the court is being used as a tool."

In China only the official Church has the right to publish the Bible, generally in small numbers that cannot be sold in bookstores.

"It is the fourth time that the trial has been scheduled, with three earlier court dates postponed as lawyers and family and church members arrived at the court," Attorney Gao said.

Case judge You Tao confirmed the court date but refused to comment on the specifics of the case, while disputing whether defendant Cai Zhuohua was a pastor or not.

"I have never heard anything about him being a pastor, he is just an ordinary Chinese citizen," Judge You said.

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