New York -- Intriguing details are emerging about a civil lawsuit filed in a U.S. federal court in Brooklyn in search of an answer a decades-old question: Is the Falun Gong a religion or a cult?
The complaint stems from a series of alleged incidents as far back as 2008, when the Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance (CACWA), a group whose members have been praised by Chinese state media, was incorporated in New York.
The federal court lawsuit was filed in March 2015, but certain details have only recently become available following a lower court decision to make public select documents related to the case on the grounds that the public's right to access the information outweighs the plaintiffs' desire for privacy.
In the suit, 11 Falun Gong members and two individuals who say they were mistaken for adherents allege that at least four people associated with the CACWA have engaged in an "ongoing campaign of violent assaults, threats, intimidation, and other abuses" to deprive them of their rights to practice and promulgate Falun Gong beliefs.
The Falun Gong is a Buddhist and Taoist-tinged practice that includes qigong exercise and meditation; it was outlawed as a cult in mainland China in 1999, but the alleged incidents took place thousands of miles away in Flushing, a Chinese enclave in the New York City borough of Queens.
The lawsuit has attracted the attention of U.S. constitutional scholars and human rights activists because its ramifications could extend beyond the metropolis. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and says, among other things, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The 13 plaintiffs consist of U.S., Chinese and Hong Kong citizens who reside in the U.S. states of New York and Maryland and in Canada. In their complaint, they say that the four named defendants, two men and two women, all of whom are believed to reside or work in Queens, along with other unknown persons, engaged in behavior that included death threats and beatings that led the plaintiffs justifiably to fear imminent bodily harm or death.
They list more than a dozen incidents where one or more of the defendants are said to have struck them, harassed them or threatened to "strangle all of [them] to death" when they were handing out Falun Gong materials, participating in a Lunar New Year parade, or just walking down the street.
In one instance, a plaintiff alleges that she was told that "the United States cannot protect you," and that she was on a Chinese embassy blacklist and would be "disappear[ed]." Another plaintiff said he was surrounded by a mob of Chinese Communist Party loyalists and CACWA members who raised their fists and yelled "Down with the evil cult" at him.
The plaintiffs seek an injunction against the defendants that would prevent them from coming within 15.24 meters of them and the Falun Gong spiritual center in Flushing, situated in a bustling spot in the neighborhood's main thoroughfare. They are also asking for financial damages.
Terri Marsh, the plaintiffs' lawyer, declined to make her clients available for interviews. She and her co-counsel, Joshua Moskovitz, did not respond to repeated requests for further comment.
Defense lawyer Tom Fini called the lawsuit an attempt by the Falun Gong to suppress those who disagreed with their beliefs. "My clients want the right to say that the Falun Gong has irrational beliefs, but that doesn't mean that everyone has to agree with each other," he said in an interview.
Among the "irrational beliefs" he cited were claims made by Li Hongzhi, the Falun Gong's U.S.-based founder, that aliens had introduced computers and airplanes to human society and that he could levitate -- a power also claimed by the celebrity magician David Copperfield.
Fini has attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to subpoena Li, a reclusive figure who is believed to reside in New York state and has been spotted at Falun Gong events in Los Angeles and Brooklyn.
Fini also called the allegations of violence exaggerated, saying that they were, at most, scuffles on the street. "It's not unlike how Trump supporters get into scuffles with young people voting for Bernie," Fini said, referencing U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, the runner-up for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. "No one gets hurt or goes to the hospital."
Once tolerated by the Chinese authorities the movement was classified as a "cult" and outlawed by President Jiang Zemin, the predecessor but one of current Chinese President Xi Jinping. Human rights groups such as the International Coalition to End Organ Pillaging in China say Beijing's crackdown includes measures such as forced organ transplants.
Falun Gong beliefs are still practiced and proselytized by the overseas Chinese community in places such as Taiwan and the U.S. Shen Yun, an affiliated dance group, performs at major venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York, and kiosks distributing the Epoch Times, a pro-Falun Gong newspaper, are commonplace throughout Manhattan, the heart of New York.
The New York Falun Gong adherents say that the CACWA's actions are an extension of the Chinese government's continuing crackdown. They assert that the CACWA is an offshoot of that campaign and that Michael Chu, the co-chairman of the alliance and one of the named defendants, also leads a Chinese state body that "monitors" the behavior of overseas Chinese communities. The Chinese consulate general in New York did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Chu, a Taiwan-born immigrant, is a prominent figure in the Flushing community, nicknamed the "Mayor of Flushing." A flattering New York Times profile and an article in China Daily, China's English language mouthpiece, detailed how Chu created and leads a neighborhood watch group that works with the police to maintain safety in Flushing.
The Epoch Times has branded Chu a servant of Beijing and a purveyor of hate. The pro-Falun Gong publication also alleges that Chu's neighborhood watch collaborates with the CACWA.
Fini said it was ironic that "instead of being happy that everybody has freedom, the Falun Gong's biggest problem is being called a cult." He said the case is not about religious freedom, arguing that the Falun Gong freely publishes a newspaper in the U.S. and is unhindered in carrying out activities such as an annual parade in midtown Manhattan.
"It is ridiculous to suggest that my clients are interfering with their rights to practice [their religion]," he said. "This case is about free speech rights that are part of the tradition of our nation. Welcome to America."
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