China has launched a series of crackdowns on Christianity in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games scheduled in Beijing, but now the international ministry group Open Doors USA is calling for the release of one of the men apparently caught up in that campaign, prominent underground pastor Zhang Rongliang, whose health is failing.

Zhang leads the Fangcheng Mother Church in Henan and the China for Christ Church, one of the largest house church networks in the country with an estimated 10 million members.

Co-author of the “House Churches of China’s Confession of Faith and Declaration” in 1999, he is well-known internationally and has been featured in books such as “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power,” by former Time magazine journalist David Aikman, and in articles in magazines such as Newsweek.

Zhang, 53, was taken into custody Dec. 1, 2004, at his apartment in Xuzhai village, Zhengzhou city, Henan province, the Oklahoma-based the Voice of the Martyrs reported. He is now serving a seven and a half year prison term on charges of illegal border crossings and obtaining illegal travel documents.

Officials said Zhang was forced into using falsified passport documents to attend mission conferences abroad after the Chinese government continually refused to issue legal documentation to leaders in the Chinese house church network.

Now imprisoned with 20 others in a 100 square foot cell with no beds or toilets, Zhang’s life hangs in the balance, the ministries say. The pastor is known to suffer from five chronic conditions, including severe diabetes, and sources say he may not survive if his sentence continues.

As a visible thorn in the side of the anti-Christian Chinese government, Zhang has already spent 12 years in prison during five separate detentions since his secret baptism in 1969, VOM said. He experienced harsh torture, including electric shocks, during his prison terms, which now contribute to his weakened condition.

Prior to his sentencing in 2006, Zhang was detained for over a year, during which time an intermediate court in Zhongmu City sent his case back to a lower court, stating that there was “insufficient evidence and ambiguous facts.”

As he waited for the results of his trial, Zhang’s medical conditions worsened, and authorities were forced to transfer him to a hospital for emergency care. According to Chinese law, he is qualified to ask for medical parole based on his health problems, said Compass Direct News.

Open Doors USA Advocacy Coordinator Lindsay Vessey said: “We are deeply concerned about Pastor Zhang’s failing health. We suspect he is not getting proper medical attention as last year one witness reportedly saw Zhang chained and handcuffed to a hospital bed when he was receiving treatment.”

“This is a critical opportunity for the Chinese government to promote commitment to human rights and religious freedom by releasing Zhang on medical parole,” she continued.

All Protestant and Catholic churches in China are required to be under control of the government, and groups that do not register – the vast majority – are included in the list of “illegal cults.”

Zhang’s wife, Chen Hongxian, has appealed to human rights groups around the world to advocate for her husband and for the international Christian community to keep him in prayer, according to Compass Direct.

She is particularly concerned for her family, as authorities also have targeted the couple’s two sons, who were heavily involved with the Chinese ministry effort, before they were pursued by the police and forced into hiding.

In response to Hongxian’s appeal and out of concern for Ronglian’s condition, Open Doors USA and International Christian Concern have launched a campaign urging members of Congress to sign a letter sponsored by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., addressed to President Bush. The letter implores Bush to request the release of Zhang on medical parole during his next meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The international outreach organizations say they hope the world’s focus on China’s internal policies and bilateral relations will add necessary weight to the request.

Open Doors USA is urging Christians to aid in the effort by e-mailing their members of Congress, asking that they sign the letter sponsored by Franks. After collecting signatures from other representatives, Frank’s office has promised to send the letter to Bush.

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Jennifer Carden is an editorial assistant for WorldNetDaily

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