Beijing games highlight China issues of religious freedom

By staff writers
February 7, 2007

Using the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as a platform, a US commission on religious freedom has called for increased international pressure on China to end its intolerance of religious expression - writes Cheryl Heckler for Ecumenical News International (ENI).

Felice Gaer, chairperson of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, asked the US Congress to give the subject of religious freedom the same priority as trade and security when dealing with China.

The US State Department has included China on its list of "severe" religious freedom violators for the past seven years. Those violated include Christian Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Uigher Muslims, and members of the Falun Gong Movement, the religious freedom commission has stated.

"It is up to the US and its allies to vigorously advocate that China finally end the systematic and egregious human rights violations it may try to hide behind a facade of Olympic goodwill," Gaer said on 31 January 2007 at a congressional hearing.

China responded on 1 February by calling the commission's findings "groundless" and labelled it interference in domestic affairs. In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said the commission "has again made a groundless attack ... on the religious and human rights situation in China." She accused the commission of interfering in China's internal affairs. "Chinese citizens enjoy broad and full freedom of religious belief that is recognised by all."

But testimony at the congressional hearings included photos of those who have been imprisoned in China, including an image of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was six years old when he disappeared in 1995.

The child was chosen by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s highest-ranking spiritual leader, to be his successor and is believed to have been under a form of house arrest ever since. Bhuchung Tsering, vice-president of the International Campaign for Tibet, told members of the congress that Gedhun's situation was "reflective of the nature of China's trampling of Tibetan religious freedom".

"In the year before the Beijing Olympics, Chinese authorities have raised the stakes - drawing a line between 'normal' religious activity and 'illegal' religious activity," Tsering said. "Those not deemed 'normal' face continued pressure, harassment and arrest."

Joseph Kung, who heads the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a US-based group promoting the Roman Catholic Church in China, said, "The open persecution of peaceful religious believers by an Olympic host country makes a mockery of this goal of the Olympic movement."

The US commission monitors religious freedom around the world as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is appointed the US president and supports no particular political party.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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