The family of a young man arrested last month for attending an unofficial Christian service in China's northeast says they believe he was beaten to death while in police custody, while two prominent house-church leaders are still in detention.
The mother of Gu Xianggao, 28, who was arrested on April 27 while attending a house-church meeting in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, said that police raised their suspicions when they flew to Harbin city when they heard the news of his death.
"They took the body away very quickly," Gu's mother, Zhao Meihua, told RFA reporter Yan Ming. "But my husband and daughter saw that there was black around his eyes. They said it was that the body's skin color had changed, but we don't think it was that."
Asked if she thought her son had been killed by ill-treatment, she said: "Yes, I do think it was that. Otherwise, such a good boy, how would he have died?"
Gu's mother said police refused to let them see the body properly, and kept changing the official cause of death. They also paid the family 230,000 yuan via a solicitor in compensation, on the condition that the family did not pursue its inquiries into Gu's death.
Zhao Meihua said the family, confused and grief-stricken, accepted the compensation agreement. "They didn't say why they were paying the compensation...it was all sorted out with the lawyer at the time. At the time we didn't understand the law," she said.
Overseas Christian groups say Gu was a teacher in a controversial house church group known as "Three Grades of Servant." The leader of the group, Xu Shuangfu — ; also known as Xu Shengguang — ; was abducted in April by unidentified people driving a police jeep, his family say. Nothing has been heard of him since.
Xu — ; whose group is targeted by Beijing as an evil cult second only to the Buddhism and qigong-based Falungong — ; has been arrested more than 20 times, and spent more than 20 years in prison. His group claims millions of followers, dozens of whom were arrested in April at the same time as Gu.
Meanwhile, police in Mengcheng County in the eastern province of Anhui declined to comment on overseas rights group reports that house-church leader Zhao Wenquan was detained on May 9 after leading a meeting of more than 4,000 followers.
National security police are thought to have detained Zhao for "illegal assembly and disturbing the peace," and carried out searches of church leaders' homes, but declined to comment on the reports.
"I can't tell you on the telephone. I invite you to come here and speak face to face," an official who answered the phone at the Mengcheng County Public Security Bureau told RFA.
China has seen an upsurge in the number of people turning to religion in the past decade, as sweeping social changes and rampant official corruption leave many who formerly benefited from the cradle-to-grave socialist welfare system looking for meaning and emotional stability.
China's Communist regime tolerates strictly controlled and officially recognized Christian churches, but cracks down harshly on any unofficial religious movements with a strong popular following, fearing that they might grow powerful enough to overthrow it.
In an apparent attempt to contain the flood of new converts, the authorities in Beijing have announced they will build two new Christian churches in the capital, the first since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.
Zhang Shuxian, director of the Beijing Municipal Administration for Religious Affairs told the Beijing Municipal People's Congress Standing Committee Wednesday that the municipal government had set aside 40 million yuan (U.S.$4.8 million) for the churches, which would be built in cooperation with the officially-endorsed Beijing Municipal Christian Association. The churches would accommodate 1,000 people each, Zhang said.