BEIJING - More than 10,000 followers of a Chinese religious cult besieged Beijing's leadership compound on Sunday to demand official status for their faith in the biggest protest in the capital for a decade.
Leaders of the cult, which claims 100 million members and whose U.S.-based leader preaches salvation from a wicked world headed for catastrophe, demanded to meet Premier Zhu Rongji.
As evening approached, police handed out fliers demanding the demonstrators disperse, but they took no action to try to break up the gathering.
The protest, sparked by the arrest of dozens of cult members last week in the port of Tianjin, was by far the largest demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which were crushed by the army on June 4 of that year.
The gathering underlined concerns among the leadership of social unrest in a politically sensitive year, which includes the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
It illustrated the new challenges faced by the Communist Party, not just from pro-democracy activists but from religious and cultist groups which have found a mass following amid rapid social change and upheaval.
Li Hongzhi, the charismatic leader of the Fa Lun Gong sect, claims powers of healing and rails against homosexuals, rock and roll, television and drugs, which he believes have poisoned the minds and bodies of mankind.
Those detained at Tianjin had staged a one week sit-down protest outside a college which sponsors a magazine that had attacked the cult.
One woman announced to Sunday's crowds that three cult representatives had been received by Zhu and he had promised an inquiry into their complaints.
The protesters were packed up to eight deep on pavements running for at least two km (1.2 miles) along two sides of the Zhongnanhai walled compound, the seat of power of the Chinese Communist Party where Zhu and other leaders work.
Most were elderly devotees, their heads lowered as they silently read copies of a book written by Li which they regard as their bible. Some sat cross-legged on newspapers in the lotus position.
Li's works are banned by authorities as superstition, which is outlawed in China.
"When the government agrees to our demands, we will leave," said a 60-year-old protester from Huairou county on the outskirts of Beijing.
"If they agree this year, we'll leave this year. If they agree next year, we will leave next year."
"We want legal status," the man said.
Another middle-aged man said: "We want to practise our belief in a less restricted environment."
Police were posted at intervals to stop the protesters spilling on to the streets and blocking traffic.
There were no slogans, no banners and no signs of aggression. Some had brought picnic lunches and several cult organisers were even directing traffic themselves.
Li, 47, teaches that he was sent to earth by the "supreme being" to rescue mankind from moral depravity caused by science and technology. He claims a higher spiritual authority than Jesus, Mohammad and Buddha.
Li has travelled widely in the United States and Europe, drawing adherents with claims to be able to heal sickness using "qi gong," an ancient Chinese martial art form.
Fa Lun Gong has a following mainly among the elderly and sick, but it has also reached into the middle and lower reaches of the Communist Party.
"Fan Lun Gong is the biggest threat to the Communist Party, not the China Democracy Party," a Chinese journalist said, referring to the banned opposition party.
Comments of Wan Yan Hai: Although I don't like the system of Fa Lun Gong and also Fa Lun is very sexual conservative and even anti-gay, I support the rights of Fa Lun members. That is the freedom of religion. But we should pay attention to such events and social movements. There are numerous of members of Fa Lun practising Fa Lun, a kind of Qi Gong or a Chinese style religion, everyday in my neighbours.