Three leading American clergymen back from a three-week investigation of religious freedom in China reported guarded hope Wednesday that authorities will begin easing restrictions on worship as a result of their talks with President Jiang Zemin and other senior officials.
They cited no immediate results of their February visit but stressed the unprecedented and candid nature of their discussions with the Chinese leadership and noted China’s recently announced decision to sign the U.N. covenant on human rights, which includes freedom of worship.
“We tried to convey to the leadership that in order to move the relationship forward between the United States and China, it is imperative to address the issue of religious freedom,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation of New York.
In their 65-minute session with Jiang, the Chinese president acknowledged that religion could play a positive role in China and suggested that “differences can be gradually narrowed and common ground broadened” between the Chinese and Western views on worship, the men said in their official report.
Donald Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, cited unspecified “signs of progress” toward the release of some prisoners of conscience mentioned by the Americans in talks with the Chinese.
Chinese repression of religious communities has emerged as a growing source of friction between Beijing and Western human rights groups and as a rallying point for opposition to the Clinton administration’s policy of engagement with the Chinese regime. The president named the delegation following his October summit with Jiang. Besides Schneier and Argue, it included the Rev. Theodore E. McCarrick, Roman Catholic archbishop of Newark, N.J.
During their visit, they conferred with Jiang and more than 20 other Chinese officials, visited churches, temples, a mosque, monasteries, a nunnery, seminaries and a prison in Tibet where many of the inmates are Buddhist monks and nuns. Although Chinese law requires that churches and other religious facilities register with the state, the delegation also visited underground churches. But they were turned back in attempts to meet with four of China’s most celebrated religious prisoners of conscience, including Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 8-year-old boy designated by the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, the second-most-important spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.
The clergymen were told the boy and his parents were safe in Chinese custody, and they were offered an audience with the child the government has put forward as an alternative Panchen Lama. They declined.