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Wednesday, July 14, 1999 Published at 20:51 GMT 21:51 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Death for Chinese cult leader

China has sentenced the leader of a Christian religious group to death for allegedly swindling his fellow sect members.

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt: China said Supreme Spirit tried to overthrow the state
In what state media have described as the country's biggest ever cult case, Supreme Spirit sect leader Liu Jiaguo was found guilty of embezzling $40,000 from his supporters - money which was supposed to fund sect activities and help poor followers.

He was also found guilty of raping more than 10 female disciples, two of them aged just 13.

Liu Jiaguo denied the rape charges, saying the women acted voluntarily after he told them it was their sacred duty to sleep with him.

The 34-year-old leader, a rural Christian convert from Hunan province, is reported to have styled himself 'the supreme spirit'.

[ image: Jiang Zemin has warned against the rise of superstition in his country]
Jiang Zemin has warned against the rise of superstition in his country
Alongside Liu Jiaguo, the cult's deputy leader was jailed for 20 years and 20 more key members were also imprisoned. Another 40 were sent to labour camps, according to a Hong Kong human rights group.

The Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said Liu Jiaguo had appealed against his sentence.

The Chinese authorities have accused Supreme Spirit of trying to overthrow the state by calling for the founding of a spiritual nation.

Rise of religion

China has pledged to take tough action against such organisations.

BBC Beijing Correspondent Duncan Hewitt says the authorities are clearly worried by the growing number of religious and quasi-religious groups which have sprung up outside state control.

In recent years police are reported to have broken up around 10,000 such groups in Liu Jiaguo's home province of Hunan alone.

Members of the Buddhist-inspired meditation movement, Falun Gong, shocked the Chinese authorities in April when they surrounded government headquarters.

The group, which has tens of millions of followers, was protesting at being labelled a superstition.

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