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The Voice of the Martyrs learned this morning that leaders of the South China Church have had their sentences reduced after a retrial ordered by the Hubei Province Supreme Court.

A report received from our U.S. mission reported that four of the church leaders were declared innocent and released immediately. SCC founder Gong Shengliang and two other men, Xiu Fuming and Hu Yong , were sentenced to life in prison. They had been facing execution. Journalist Li Ying, the SCC's second-in-command and the publisher of an underground church magazine, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, along with Bang Kun Gong. In the original trial, Li Ying was given a death sentence.

During the retrial, the court dropped all "evil cult" charges against the South China Church leaders. One judge told members of Pastor Gong's family privately that he should be released.

"This is obviously a step in the right direction," said Gary Lane, U.S. spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs, "but it doesn't end the injustice. These men and women are not criminals. They are Christians, serving the Lord and worshipping as they see fit."

The retrial comes as Chinese President Jiang Zemin prepares to visit the United States later this month. He will be meeting with President Bush and other US leaders.

"This is clearly a public relations move by the Chinese," said Lane. "It is a gift for President Bush in advance of Jiang's trip. But public relations moves don't address the brutality and injustice that Christians face in China every single day. Our hope is that President Bush will forcefully and honestly raise this issue during Jiang's visit." According to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Hong Kong, the church leaders plan to appeal their sentences.

The SCC leaders have faced harsh treatment in prison. According to VOM sources, the court ruled that the prisoners are forbidden to have Bibles, and copies of the Scripture sent by their families have been confiscated. In addition, they have been forbidden to pray out loud in their cells. Other inmates have been ordered to interrupt their prayers and not allow them, and to report any prayers to prison officers. Some of the SCC leaders have also been severely beaten in prison.

While The Voice of the Martyrs rejoices with the families of those who have been released, we encourage Christians from around the world to continue to uphold in prayer those who remain in prison and to continue to write letters to Chinese embassies on behalf of Pastor Gong, Li Ying and the others who are still in prison.