BEIJING (AP)–China said Thursday the imprisoned founder of an unofficial Christian church was in good health, dismissing reports that he was near death due to beatings.
The Ministry of Justice said Gong Shengliang, who was convicted last October of rape and assault and is serving a life sentence, had not been tortured.
“Reports that Gong is near death as a result of abusive treatment have no basis in reality,” the ministry said in a statement issued in response to accusations made in an open letter by Gong’s friends and relatives in early June.
Gong founded the South China Church in the early 1990s, and at one time it claimed to have 50,000 followers in central China, mostly in Hubei province. He was arrested in 2001.
The letter issued by his friends and relatives said he was passing blood and has lost his hearing as a result of poor treatment. They said he was beaten for professing his faith, refusing to admit guilt and requesting an appeal.
“His hearing is normal and there are no abnormalities with his health,” said the ministry statement.
Communist authorities allow worship only in state-monitored churches. Millions of believers attend unauthorized services, often in private homes, but are subject to arrest and harassment.
“There has been no discrimination or torture of Gong,” the statement said. “He has not been involved in fights with other prisoners and has not received internal injuries as a result of beating.”
Gong and four other church leaders were sentenced to death last year under anti-cult laws. But after protests by the U.S. government and religious activists, the sentences were later changed to long prison terms.
Gong was accused of raping several female church members and ordering the beatings of followers who feuded with church leaders, according to documents submitted at his first trial. Supporters said Gong has denied the charges.