BEIJING, Nov. 29 — The leader of a Chinese Christian sect and at least 11 of his subordinates have been executed for ordering the murder of members of a rival religious group, as authorities sought to suppress big underground churches that they deemed cults.
Xu Shuangfu, the founder of the Three Grades of Servants Church, which once claimed more than a million followers in China, was put to death last week, his lawyer, Li Heping said. Mr. Li said he and Mr. Xu’s family members learned today of his death.
The execution of Mr. Xu and two other defendants, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun, brings to 12 the number of members of Three Grades of Servants who have been put to death since a crackdown on the secretive Protestant sect began in 2004, the lawyer said.
The case exposed internecine strife among underground churches as well as the determination of Chinese authorities to crush religious groups that do not abide by the rules imposed on officially sanctioned religious organizations.
Underground religious movements have become an enormously sensitive issue for the Chinese leadership since the Falun Gong spiritual group organized a mass nationwide movement that Communist Party officials viewed as a threat to their hold on power in the late 1990’s.
Since that time, the police have condemned as cults some large underground churches, including many Christian churches. That makes it illegal for them to raise funds or recruit members, and can mean arrest for anyone associated with them.
Even so, the relative backwardness of the Chinese countryside, which has gained far less than urban areas in the long economic boom, has proven fertile ground for religious groups that offer a mix of religious teaching, communal support, employment opportunities and even health care.
Three Grades of Servants and another quasi-Protestant sect, Eastern Lightning, were among the largest charismatic and evangelical church groups. Reportedly founded in the late 1980’s, the two sects spread widely and recruited heavily among peasants and migrant workers. They formed tight, secretive organizations that thrived despite official repression.
Chinese authorities labeled both sects as cults, meaning that the police had license to arrest anyone associated with them. That pushed both sects more deeply underground.
At one time, overseas Christian aid associations considered both sects to be legitimate religious groups. But many Christian experts have since argued that their teachings are heretical — Eastern Lightning claims that Jesus has returned to Earth and is a 30-year-old Chinese woman — and their organizational practices do not adhere to international norms.
Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning became archrivals in the early part of this decade as they competed to sign up adherents across northeastern China.
Some members of Eastern Lightning who had sought to lure away followers of Three Grades of Servants were found murdered beginning in 2002. Some estimates put the number of Eastern Lightning followers who were killed as high as 20.
The police moved slowly to connect the cases. But they soon reacted harshly, pursuing a nationwide crackdown against Three Grades of Servants in 2004 and 2005. They captured Mr. Xu, who had been jailed several times in the past, and prosecuted 62 other people involved with the church.
Mr. Xu was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in July. Some 21 other accused church members have so far received death sentences, according to court documents seen by international religious groups, and 12 of the executions have been carried out.
Mr. Li and Mr. Xu’s relatives do not deny that some people were murdered, but say the state’s case against Mr. Xu was deeply flawed.
Mr. Li argues that the evidence against Mr. Xu was based entirely on the confessions of fellow sect members, who he says were tortured to admit to crimes and implicate Mr. Xu.
Under Chinese law, a confession is not sufficient grounds for conviction in a criminal case. Mr. Li said prosecutors never introduced corroborating physical evidence and relied solely on the verbal testimony of other accused church members.
“The authorities presented this as a mafia-like conspiracy, but they never came close to proving their case,” Mr. Li said.
“What they really aimed to do is to shut down the whole church because they did not want to see another Falun Gong,” he said.