China rejects U.S. censure over religious freedom

Reuters, September 10, 1999

BEIJING, Sept 10, 1999 (Reuters) - China on Friday dismissed U.S. accusations that it was intensifying restrictions on religious believers, asserting that people were jailed in China for breaking the law, not for their beliefs.

"No one is detained or jailed in China because of their religious beliefs," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told Reuters.

"But regardless of whether one is a believer or not, he will be punished in accordance with the law if he breaks the law."

International human rights groups allege that criminal charges against religious believers in China are almost always trumped up.

But the spokesman denounced the U.S. State Department for "attacking China's religious policy for no reason."

"It's gross interference in China's internal affairs," he said.

The State Department, in its first annual assessment on religious freedom worldwide, said there was reason to be worried about faiths in China.

"In the past, official tolerance for religions considered to be traditionally Chinese, such Buddhism and Taoism, has been greater than that for Christianity," it said.

However, "as these non-western faiths have grown rapidly in recent years, there were signs of greater government concern and new restrictions, especially with syncretic sects," it said.

As one example, the report released on Thursday noted that in July Beijing banned the Falun Gong spiritual movement and detained thousands of adherents.

The Chinese spokesman flatly rejected the accusation.

"Falun Gong is not a religious organisation," he said.

"It steals Buddhist, Taoist and Christian terms," he said. "It possesses the characteristics of a religious cult."

The movement -- a mishmash of breathing exercises, meditation, Buddhism and Taoism -- claims 100 million members, but the government says two million is a more accurate figure.

Its leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in exile in the United States, which has rejected Chinese demands to repatriate him.

Falun Gong spreads "false reasoning and fallacy and is anti-science," the spokesman said, adding that it is "very dangerous."

The crackdown on the movement had the support of religious groups in China, he said.

The State Department determined that during the period reviewed in the report -- January 1998 to June 1999 -- in the area of religious freedom in China, "serious problems continued in violation of internationally recognised norms."

One problem involves "persecution" of Tibetan Buddhists, Moslem Uighurs and Protestant and Roman Catholics who do not belong to "official" churches.

The continuing growth of churches not registered or sanctioned by the government, as well as the growth of registered churches, "continued to cause concern among many government and Communist Party officials who perceive unregulated religious gatherings as a potential challenge to their authority," it said.

The report, based in part on an 18-page questionnaire completed by all U.S. overseas missions, was mandated by Congress and authorises sanctions against violators of religious freedom.

But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had made no decisions about sanctions or other next steps, officials said.

The Chinese constitution provides for freedom of religious belief but in practice the government "seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organisations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of religious groups," the report said.

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