The recently appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has spoken out over the Chinese government's treatment of religious minorities - and one fast growing spiritual group.
In his debut address to the UN General Assembly on 21 October 2010, Heiner Bielefeldt said that "small communities such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'i, Ahmadi, Falun Gong and others are sometimes stigmatised as ‘cults’ and are frequently confronted with prejudices that can escalate into becoming conspiracy theories."
A delegate from the Chinese government, which is a member of the UN Security Council, disputed Bielefeldt’s cliams.
He said the Chinese authorities had identified Falun Gong, in particular, as a malignant "cult” and was therefore justified in its efforts to suppress and, according to a Reuters report, “eradicate” the group.
Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that became hugely popular in China during the 1990s. By the end of the decade, state estimates put the number of practitioners between 70 to 100 million. This is a figure outnumbering the members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
It is now eleven years since the Chinese government banned Falun Gong, labeling it an “evil cult”.
Religions in China, which include Protestantism and Catholicism, have to be registered for their activities and congregations in the country.
There has been a huge growth in Christianity and Buddhism in recent years, both officially and (in the case of 'house', or unregistered, churches) unofficially.
The Chinese government has a policy of both tolerance and restriction towards religion, which it hopes will inject moral values and resilience into an increasingly market-driven society.
But it also has a record of cracking down harshly on dissent and independent activity, particularly when it questions the role or ideology of the state.