WASHINGTON – Liu Xianzhi,or Sarah as she is called,spoke softly,yet with pain. Her 5-foot fragile frame belies the torture she went through in defense of the Christian religion she described as “severe persecution for my faith.”
Now 34 and a refugee from China,Liu tearfully recounted her harrowing experience in the communist country since she became a Christian in 1989 at her mother's invitation.
Liu,who has applied for asylum in the United States,spoke at a news conference here last week.
Liu was sent to jail three times as a member of a Protestant sect,the South China Church,in Hubei province. The third time she was arrested for organizing an “evil cult,” and the punishment was more severe than ever.
She spent more than six years in labor camps hand-weaving mats,punishment common for political dissidents and defiant religious figures.
Investigators wanted Liu to confess that her church's pastor,Gong Shengliang,raped her,she said. Gong is serving a life sentence in China on charges of ordering his followers to beat police and opponents of his sect.
“I can't accuse an innocent person,” she said,speaking through an interpreter.
She said police officers gave her electric shocks. “He used the electric rod on my head,my back,my breasts and my buttocks. He put the rod on my hand and the skin started to blister. … He pulled off my bra. I felt extremely humiliated,” she said.
On her first taste of prison in 1991,she said,“Our fingernails were pierced so badly by the needles that they were bleeding.”
When she was released three months later,Liu went back to her congregation,where authorities beat her with a bamboo pole and arrested her for the same offense.
Liu is one of millions of Christians in China facing religious persecution,said Bob Fu,president of the China Aid Association.
In Liu's church of at least 100,000 believers nationally,more than 8,000 members have been arrested,said Fu,whose group documents religious persecution cases. He estimated there are 80 to 100 million Christians in China,a country of 1.3 billion people.
“The situation has been worsening year after year. … It's time for the people of conscience to take a stand,” Fu said.
He urged the U.S. government to take action under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act,which condemns religious persecution.
The act established an ambassador-at-large for religious liberty at the State Department and the Commission on International Religious Liberty to investigate religious persecution and release annual policy recommendations.
Tad Stahnke,the commission's deputy director for policy,said China has been on the commission's watch list since its first report in 2000,together with Burma,Iran,North Korea and Sudan.
He said the law requires the administration to take steps after a country is placed on the list,including examining trade relations.
Graham Walker,dean of the political science department at Oklahoma Wesleyan University,said the Chinese government's crackdown on the South China Church might be part of an effort to prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games to be held in Beijing.
China does allow Christians to practice their religion,he said,but only in state-approved churches. The South China Church does not have government approval.
Walker said the Chinese government is moving quickly now so it can project a “toned down” image on religious persecution later.
Bob Turner,director of the human rights group Jubilee Campaign,said,“We are calling for China to stand by its constitution,which guarantees the fundamental right to practice what you believe.”
In 2003,4,750 Chinese asked for asylum in the United States,and about half were approved,according to the Web site of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Bill Strassberger,the agency's public affairs officer,said there is no breakdown on why individuals ask for asylum,but he said most are for political and religious reasons.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy declined to comment.
Years of torture and solitary confinement have taken their toll on Liu. “When I hear dogs barking,loud and fast knocking on the door,the sound of police sirens,or I see men who are not wearing shirts,I have an overwhelming sense of fear,” she said.
But Liu's determination to fight for religious freedom in China keeps her going,she said. Now in a recovery facility in Midland,Texas,she is learning English to convey her ordeal to wider audience. “I felt very honored that I was able to partake in the suffering of Christ,” Liu said.