The February trip of three prominent U.S. clerics to China signifies continued American interest in religious freedom and the increasing receptiveness of Chinese officials.
American opinion regarding the treatment of religion in China ranges from optimism over the rate of growth of the five main religions to extreme pessimism regarding the arrest and imprisonment of non-registered religious practitioners and the closing of non-registered religious venues.
The Chinese government states that there are over 100 million religious practitioners in China today, but critics contend that the number is far greater.
During their three-week trip to China, Reverend Donald Argue, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier met with officials from the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) and people of many faiths.
During a meeting with President Jiang Zemin, the group tried to convey the importance of religious freedom to Americans. Jiang agreed to give serious consideration to their concerns.
At a March 18, 1998 press conference the three announced that they believe their visit played a positive role in China’s recent decision to sign the U.N. International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Recognizing that more progress needs to be made, however, the delegation informed reporters that their request to see the Panchen Lama was denied.
Some critics of China’s treatment of religion claim that the government and party ignore the definition of religious freedom contained in Article 36 of the Constitution which states that, "Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion. . . ."
Since 1994, some contend the government has attempted to restrict the practice of religion through Decrees 144 and 145. Since their passage, international groups have noted that religious practitioners have faced increased harassment, confiscation of property, imprisonment, and sentencing to forced labor camps.
Such charges have prompted Congress to consider several pieces of legislation aimed at pressuring the government to abolish these methods and loosen its control of religion. These bills are summarized below:
H.R. 967 (Gilman) Free the Clergy Act. Requires U.S. to deny international travel funds to official religious organizations that participate in religious persecution. Passed on 11/06/97 by a vote of 366-54.
H.R. 2431/S. 772 (Wolf/Specter) Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997. Establishes the U.S. Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring.
H.R. 2358 (Ros-Lehtinen) Provides for increased embassy monitoring of human rights violations in China.
S. 1164 (Abraham) The China Policy Act of 1997. Sets forth a comprehensive policy for U.S. that includes sanctions on PLA enterprises, denial of visas and funds for Chinese officials, and annual reports on intelligence activities.
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