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China must explain death of leading Christian lawyer

Celebrated Chinese campaigner for Christian freedom, Dr Li Baiguang, has died in suspicious circumstances in China

Celebrated Chinese campaigner for Christian freedom, Dr Li Baiguang, has died in suspicious circumstances in China. Release International says the Chinese authorities must account for his death.

Dr Li Baiguang, an internationally renowned human rights defence lawyer, was pronounced dead this morning. He is said to have died at 3am in the Chinese government military hospital in Nanjing, hours after checking in for a stomach complaint. The hospital said he had bled to death due to a liver condition. But Dr Li, who was only 49 and neither drank nor smoked, had been in good health shortly beforehand. Other human rights campaigners have died in similarly suspicious circumstances.

Dr Li was an outspoken legal advocate for Christian pastors who have been arrested for their faith.

Release partners say the authorities had a history of using violence and threatening behaviour against Dr Li. In October, he was abducted by Chinese officials in Zhejiang province, beaten and threatened with dismemberment for defending farmers whose land was seized by the government.

Earlier this month, Dr Li said he felt threatened after attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. While he was out of the country, Chinese authorities interrogated his pastor.

He leaves a wife and eight-year-old son. He was internationally recognised with the National Endowment for Democracy in 2008 and had several audiences with US President George W Bush.

‘We are deeply saddened by the loss of this courageous, bold and compassionate Christian lawyer,’ says Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world. ‘We call on China to give a full, independent and transparent account of the reasons for his sudden and unexpected death.’

According to Release partner, Bob Fu of China Aid, Li Baiguang had been in good health when he attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC earlier this month. He describes the death as ‘really suspicious’.

February saw a tightening of restrictions against Christians in China, which will impact registered churches as well as house churches. Release partners warn the increased controls could lead to the most severe crackdown on Christians in China since the Cultural Revolution and increased persecution in the decade to come.

In the build-up to the new regulations, some 1500 crosses have been torn down, churches have been demolished, offerings seized, and pastors arrested.

Many human rights lawyers, including Christians, have also been arrested. They have been denied visits by their families or legal representation.

The new Regulations for Religious Affairs are intended to clamp down on extremism. They forbid religious organisations from using religion to ‘harm national security or disrupt social order’.

‘China is increasingly regarding Christians as enemies of the state,’ says Paul Robinson, of Release International. ‘These new rules are intended to bring the church under the ever-tighter control of the state, even though freedom of religious belief is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution.

‘Where churches have used lawyers to campaign for their legal rights, those lawyers have been arrested. In some cases, they have disappeared and have been tortured into making forced confessions –  all the while trying to work within the law to uphold the rule of law in China.

‘Today China has lost another brave Christian lawyer in Li Baiguang, and the world must call on China to account for this courageous man’s untimely death.’

Despite the increasingly open persecution of Christians in China, the growth of Christianity there seems unstoppable. ‘Under communism, Christianity has grown from one million Christians in China to an estimated 100 million today,’ says Bob Fu.

Some sociologists project that number of Chinese Christians will exceed 220 million by 2030 – making China the largest Christianised nation in the world.

Release International is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Through its international network of missions UK-based Release serves persecuted Christians by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners and their families, supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.

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