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Will religion flourish under China's new leadership?
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Randall G. Schriver
Randall G. Schriver Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China
July 24, 2003
"Will Religion Flourish under China's New Leadership?"
Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the current state of religious freedom in China and the prospects for improvements in the situation under China's new leadership. I would also like to discuss the many efforts the Administration has taken to push for greater respect for religious freedom in China. Finally, I look forward to hearing from other speakers their views on options open to the United States to prompt the development of new policies toward religion in China.
As you know, President Bush is deeply and personally concerned over the state of religious freedom in China, and he has raised his concerns in his meetings with Chinese leaders and in public remarks in China. Addressing Chinese students at Beijing's Qinghua University in February 2002, the President said, "Freedom of religion is not something to be feared, it's to be welcomed, because faith gives us a moral core and teaches us to hold ourselves to high standards, to love and to serve others, and to live responsible lives." Speaking to the strong interest we have over the situation in China, the President added, "My prayer is that all persecution will end, so that all in China are free to gather and worship as they wish."
These concerns are shared by all of us in the Department of State, and in our mission in China. Promoting respect for religious freedom is one of our top foreign policy goals. So I welcome today's hearing on this important topic, and look forward to continuing the dialogue in the future.
During the last 12 months, the government's respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor overall, especially for many unregistered religious groups and spiritual movements such as the Falun Gong. Thousands of believers -- Catholics, Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Muslims, or members of the Falun Gong and other groups -- remain in prison for seeking to exercise their religious or spiritual views. Some have been tortured; many have been abused.
But at the same time, we have seen some positive developments that may suggest a possibility of increasing tolerance for religious activity. China has seen progress since the late 1960's, when religious activity was entirely proscribed. The growing number of believers in China is a testament to the hunger of Chinese people for religious faith. It is also a testament to the greater space given to some religious organizations by the government. While we seek to highlight and encourage the positive trends that we see, this does not mean that the overall situation is good. It clearly is not, and we remain very disturbed at the harassment and serious mistreatment of many religious believers in China, as well as by the Chinese Government's continued insistence on controlling religious activity.
Let me discuss a few specific areas of concern to illustrate this complex picture.
The way to deal with dissatisfaction among minority peoples is not through crackdowns, but through allowing Uyghurs and others the high degree of autonomy guaranteed them under Chinese law. For the Uyghurs, as for Tibetans and other minority groups, this means having a greater voice in decisions affecting their lives -- for example, greater respect for their rights to decide when, where and how to worship. We urge Chinese officials to recognize what President Bush has repeatedly stated: that religious faith is a source of strength for any community, and that China has nothing to fear from the free and unhindered practice of religion, whether Islam in Xinjiang, Buddhism in Tibet, or Christianity throughout China.
South China Church
Relations with the Vatican
North Koreans in China
Numbers of Believers
Despite all the problems I just mentioned, officials, religious professionals, and persons who attend services at both officially sanctioned and underground places of worship all report that the numbers of believers in China continues to grow, and credible reports place the number of worshippers in the tens of millions. An increasing number of these religious adherents also report they are able to practice their faith in officially registered places of worship and to maintain contacts with those who share their beliefs in other parts of the world without interference from the authorities. These are hopeful signs.
Potential for Change under New Leadership
At last December's human rights dialogue, China committed to cooperate with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, as well as with the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Chinese leaders promised that all three groups would soon be visiting China, but to date no such visits have been scheduled. Some of this can be attributed to the SARS outbreak, and we acknowledge that the epidemic created obstacles to many types of exchanges. However, the worst of the outbreak is behind us, and we now expect China to move forward quickly on its commitments to work with these international bodies.
In addition, Chinese leaders agreed last December to invite the Congressionally-chartered U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to visit China. I believe that Commissioner Felice Gaer, who will speak later, plans to go on the trip. We understand that this trip is scheduled to take place next month. We look forward to hearing the Commission's findings upon their return.
China invited the elder brother of the Dalai Lama to visit last summer, and then invited emissaries of the Dalai Lama to visit last September. Another visit by the Dalai Lama's emissaries took place again two months ago, which suggests the new leadership may be willing to keep the dialogue going. We have long pressed for resumption of dialogue between the Government of China and the Dalai Lama or his representatives, so we are encouraged that the exchanges continue to take place. We urge that the two sides continue to work toward a negotiated settlement on issues of mutual concern.
As for the broader question on the willingness of Chinese leaders to take steps to address restrictions on religious activity in China, I can only say that we are waiting for progress in a number of key areas. Moments ago, I discussed the problems surrounding the registration requirements, and we have repeatedly urged China to liberalize -- or drop altogether -- these requirements, and to stop arresting those who do not register. We continue to make this demand, and to watch for a clear policy shift in this area. In addition, Chinese officials repeatedly told us that minors are free to participate in religious activity anywhere in China -- to participate in programs of religious training, and to enter places of worship. While no policy statement has emerged from Beijing, we expect China to honor its pledge to address this issue.
So whether or not the Chinese people will enjoy greater freedom to practice and express their faith under the new leadership remains an open question. We have seen a few positive developments, but these take place in an environment where respect for religious freedom remains poor overall. We call again on Chinese leaders to honor the commitments they made to the United States last December, and to address the concerns of the international community in a more systemic, comprehensive manner.
The issue of religious freedom also was raised during the official U.S.-China human rights dialogue in December, which was conducted by both Assistant Secretary Craner and Ambassador Hanford. Part of the U.S. delegation, led by the Assistant Secretary, traveled to Xinjiang to meet with Muslim clerics and government officials and to express concern that authorities were using the war on terrorism as an excuse to persecute Uyghur Muslims. Another part of the delegation, headed by Ambassador Hanford, engaged in a roundtable discussion on religion and held several in-depth meetings on religion with key policy makers.
These diplomatic efforts have led to some progress. Several religious prisoners were released during the last 12 months, including a number of Tibetan nuns. The most prominent is Ngawang Sangdrol. She was released last October, and the new leadership permitted her to leave China and travel to the United States in late March. Ngawang Sangdrol and the other nuns detained with her should never have been arrested in the first place; their "crimes" were to demonstrate for greater freedom for Tibet and for Tibetan Buddhists. The physical abuse they suffered in prison in Lhasa is shocking and totally unacceptable. Nonetheless, their releases are significant, and we again call for China to release all persons detained for the nonviolent expression of their religious views.
Let me close by saying again that the situation of religious freedom, as with many things in China, is a decidedly mixed picture. China's new leadership has not yet made clear what its policy toward religious freedom in particular, and human rights in general, will be. China remains a country of particular concern, and yet we have seen a few hopeful signs. We have no illusions about China's history of hostility to religion -- and in particular to religious groups that refuse to take direction from the State.
Nevertheless, we will continue to call for China to make the right choices here, and to understand clearly the President's message that China has nothing to fear from the unfettered worship of people of faith. We will also continue to make clear to our interlocutors that this is an issue that will not go away for us, that concerns over human rights and religious freedom will remain an obstacle to closer ties between China and the United States, and between China and the rest of the world.
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