BEIJING (Reuters) - China will prosecute the leader of what it calls a "cult" on charges of rape, fraud, sabotage and other crimes, state news agency Xinhua said, as the government deepens a crackdown on what it views as illegal and dangerous religious movements.
Prosecutors in the southern province of Guangdong are charging Wu Zeheng, founder and leader of Huazang Dharma, and several others after a year-long probe, the official Xinhua news agency said late on Wednesday.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. government commission, says Wu and his followers are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Reuters was unable to reach Wu or his group for comment. It was not clear if he has a lawyer.
A statement on the group's website, which is blocked in China, appeals for international help for Wu, saying that he is a purely religious figure facing cooked-up accusations.
Xinhua said that Wu has already been jailed at least twice, and set up his Buddhist-inspired cult in 2010 upon his last release from jail.
"Glorified with fabricated educational background and life experience, Wu eventually became a master with supernatural power in the eyes of his followers," it added.
"In the name of charity and life science and through inflammatory preaching, Wu lured a growing number of believers who wished to study Buddhism, seek disease treatment, or ward off ill fortune by joining the cult."
China's official atheist Communist Party does not tolerate challenges to its rule and is obsessed with social stability. Religious activities must be state sanctioned.
Authorities have gone after what they view as cults, which have multiplied in recent years, and demonstrations have been put down with force and some sect leaders executed.
The government is considering tougher penalties for cult members, China's largely rubber stamp parliament said last month.
China executed two members of a banned religious cult in February for murdering a woman in a McDonald's restaurant after she rebuffed an apparent recruitment attempt by the group last May.
In 1999, then-President Jiang Zemin launched a campaign to crush the Falun Gong religious group. It was banned as an "evil cult" after thousands of practitioners staged a surprise but peaceful sit-in outside the leadership compound in Beijing to demand official recognition of their movement.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jeremy Laurence