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12/31/03 - CHINA AND RELIGION - 2003-12-31

China is one of several countries, including North Korea and Burma, where governments attempt to control religious belief or practice. As the U.S. State Department’s latest Report on International Religious Freedom makes clear, the Chinese government’s respect for freedom of religion and conscience remains “poor, especially for many unregistered religious groups and spiritual movements.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the U.S. has raised its concerns with Chinese authorities:

“We know the conditions are different from region to region, but there are consistent reports of harassment, intimidation, detention of religious believers. We’ve documented this treatment of religious activity in our annual report. . . . [T]he Chinese constitution guarantees the right of religious belief, religious freedoms protected under international human rights interests, and we’ve called on the Chinese government to respect and protect this right for all of its citizens.”

The Chinese government recognizes Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Tens of millions of Chinese practice these religions in groups registered with and controlled by the government. But tens of millions of other believers seek to worship free of government control. In response, says the State Department report, police have “closed underground mosques, temples, and seminaries, as well as some [Roman] Catholic churches and Protestant ‘house churches,’ many with significant memberships. . . . Many religious leaders and adherents [have been] detained, arrested, or sentenced to prison terms.” In some areas, members of unauthorized groups have been subjected to physical abuse and torture.

The Chinese government also continues its repression of groups it considers to be “cults,” such as the Falun Gong. In Xinjiang province, home to millions of Muslim Uighurs, the government restricts the building of mosques and the teaching of Islam to children. In Tibet, monks who refuse to denounce the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have been expelled from monasteries.

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” People in China -- no less than those everywhere else -- should be allowed to practice their faith without government interference.