WASHINGTON -- The elusive founder of the Falungong sect appealed to China not to treat his followers as "enemies", saying he feared the recurrence of a second Tiananmen incident.
"I am also concerned that the Chinese practitioners will be more severely persecuted... I am deeply worried that another June 4 bloodshed will take place," Mr Li Hongzhi said, referring to the 1989 military suppression of a student protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Saying the crackdown on his group would lead to loss of confidence in the Chinese leadership, he asked: "Why is the government suppressing so many people and treating them as enemies? We do not participate in politics."
"To this day, no matter how the police force beat up our practitioners, none of the practitioners has responded in kind. They only want to present the truth of Falungong to the government," he added.
Mr Li, the New York-based spiritual leader of the mind-and-body sect, said in a statement on Thursday night:
"It is my hope that the Chinese government and its leadership will not treat the people who practise Falungong as enemies.
"Chinese people throughout the country have a very in-depth understanding of Falungong, and the consequences would cause people to lose confidence in the government and its leadership and to be disappointed in the Chinese government."
He was also concerned that his mother and sister in Beijing would be detained by the police.
He reportedly has 100 million followers worldwide.
He said the group was non-political and he had never desired power, saying: "Falungong is simply a popular qigong activity.
"It does not have any particular organisation, let alone any political objectives. We have never been involved in any anti-government activities."
He said he was not involved in the Zhongnanhai gathering in which 10,000 followers protested silently at the Communist Party compound, rattling the authorities in the tense run-up to the 10th Tiananmen anniversary.
In the brief statement which his Internet-savvy followers e-mailed to The Straits Times, he said he had changed planes in Beijing en route to Australia then.
He said: "I departed without knowing at all what took place in Beijing. I always travel alone in order to avoid inconvenience. I do not get in touch with practitioners wherever I go."
In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin said: "We are disturbed by reports of the ban and of some heavy-handed tactics being used to prevent Chinese citizens from exercising internationally protected fundamental rights and freedoms."
He noted that participants were peaceful and many were middle-aged women.
He said: "While we take no positions, as a government, on the teachings or practices of this movement, we do urge China to adhere to its obligations under the international human-rights instruments to permit Falungong to engage in peaceful expression of their views and in peaceful assembly."
About 300 followers from 17 states had gathered at the Chinese embassy, and planned to continue through the weekend.
Six members met embassy officials, while others sat quietly outside or exercised together.
Princeton-educated engineer Yuan P. Li of Atlanta said: "It's not a protest. It's just a show of concern and support." In New York, a gathering was planned in Central Park.
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