BEIJING --- For decades, Zhang Rongliang roamed across China, an energetic Christian preacher setting up one of the largest networks of Protestant churches operating outside state control.
But for the past 16 months, authorities have shunted Zhang among detention centers, looking for a court to convict him on charges that one judge sought to dismiss because he thought the evidence was flimsy.
"They just keep delaying and delaying and delaying," said Zhang Yinan, no relation to the preacher but a friend and a chronicler of China`s unofficial Christian churches. "Just this morning, I prayed for his release."
Always wary of religion, the Communist government has sought to rein in Christianity`s rapid spread in China, targeting activist preachers for arrest and intimidation. Preachers have been jailed or driven into exile or deeper underground, depriving Chinese Christians of some of their best-organized and most entrepreneurial leaders.
China`s limits on religion are sure to come up when Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with President Bush at the White House today.
Bush raised the issue with Hu in Beijing in November and later told reporters: "A society which recognizes religious freedom is a society which will recognize political freedom as well."
In a China where free-market reforms have upended lives once tightly circumscribed by the state and sent people searching for answers, religious belief of all kinds is exploding.
Many of those caught in the latest dragnet were instrumental in Christianity`s revival during Mao Zedong`s prohibition on religion in the 1970s.
Zhang Rongliang, the detained preacher, surreptitiously started preaching in central China in 1974. Arrested and sent to a labor camp, he evangelized fellow prisoners. AP