China to prosecute 'cult leader' amid religious group purge

BEIJING - The spiritual leader of a Chinese Buddhist sect is to be prosecuted for financial and sexual offences, state media said Thursday, as Beijing intensifies its crackdown on what it calls dangerous cults.

Wu Zeheng, the leader of the Huazang Dharma group, will face a number of charges, including rape and using a cult "to sabotage law enforcement", the official Xinhua news agency said.

Xinhua - which calls the group Huazang Zongmen - also said several other "suspected cult members" will face prosecution following a year-long investigation.

China has previously cracked down harshly on religious groups, and submitted to its rubber stamp parliament last month a new criminal law which includes harsher punishments for those involved in "cults or superstitious activities".

Supporters of Wu have said in overseas media that he is being persecuted, while the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government commission, has called for his release.

Wu - who calls himself His Holiness Vairocana Xing Wu on the group's website - seduced dozens of women by telling them sex with him could give them "supernatural power", the Xinhua report said.

The 47-year-old from China's southern Guangdong province was arrested last July with "a young woman in pyjamas" inside a locked bedroom, it added.

The report cited one follower who said she had been repeatedly raped and had become pregnant three times, but was forced to have abortions.

The police investigation showed Wu had amassed an illegal fortune of more than 6.9 million yuan ($1.1 million), according to Xinhua, which also said he would be prosecuted for "fraud, and production and sale of harmful food".

He raised money by selling paintings with "holy power" and "blessed" stamps, as well as running a restaurant in Shenzhen, neighbouring Hong Kong, where he claimed the food was cooked with "precious" ingredients.

Xinhua said prominent monks had denied any links with Wu, and that most of his writings turned out to be "plagiarisms or unlawful".

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) screened a 22-minute investigation into Huazang Dharma Thursday morning, interviewing "victims" and showing Wu in prison garb being interrogated by police.

Beijing's most notable crackdown on religious groups was directed against the Falungong spiritual movement, which was banned in the late 1990s.

More recently the outlawed "Quannengshen" - which can be translated as the Church of Almighty God - has been targeted.

A father and daughter who belonged to Quannengshen were executed in February, having been convicted of beating a woman to death at a McDonald's restaurant, reportedly after she rebuffed their attempts to recruit her.

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