A congressionally mandated panel of religious and academic leaders said yesterday that China should be denied permanent normal trade relations until it makes “substantial improvement” in allowing its people the freedom to worship.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, established in 1998 by an act of Congress, used its first annual report to accuse China, Sudan and Russia of hindering religious practices.
China and Sudan “are countries in which there are systematic, egregious, ongoing manifestations of religious persecutions,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, chairman of the commission at a news conference. The group is required to report each year by May 1.
“We were convinced that for Congress to simply grant China [permanent normal trade relations] at this moment, with no significant improvement in the state of religious freedom, would be to send Beijing a signal that these awful, inexcusable, inhumane policies did not require a more immediate response,” said Michael Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School and one of 10 co-authors of the report. “This we could not recommend.”
Mr. Young told reporters that most members of the commission were “free traders,” and did not wish to see China isolated but there has been a “serious deterioration in religious freedom during the past year in China.”
This went beyond harassment and arrests, he said. “We are talking about three-year labor-camp sentences without trial, about multiyear prison terms, about people including women beaten to death by police.”
Zhang Yuanyuan, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said he was sorry to see the report released just two or three weeks before Congress is to vote on the bill, which would renew China’s normal trade relations status, known as NTR.
“We look forward to a smooth passage [of the bill] so we can begin to enjoy the great benefits of the [World Trade Organization] agreement that both countries worked so hard over the years to reach.”
Mr. Zhang said there are now some 7 million Roman Catholics in China compared with 70,000 at the time of the Chinese revolution, and that there are 25,000 functioning mosques in western China.
Describing some of the stories cited in the report as “unreliable” and “hearsay,” he quoted Han Wenzao, president of the China Christian Council, who said during a visit to Washington this spring that “now is the best time in the history of the People’s Republic of China in terms of enjoyment of religious freedom.”
The commission’s report says that NTR for China should be based on progress in five areas. China should:
Agree to high-level dialogue with the United States on religious freedom.
Ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
Permit access to Chinese religious leaders, including those imprisoned, detained or under house arrest.
Answer questions about individuals detained for religious reasons or last seen in the custody of Chinese authorities.
Release all those imprisoned for their faith.
The report recommends that before granting NTR to China, Congress should announce hearings on religious freedom in that country and invite the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and secular leader, to address a joint session of Congress.
Mr. Young said the commission was not asking China to meet each and every recommendation in order to win NTR, but it should show willingness to improve religious freedoms.
The commission was equally harsh on Sudan.
The report describes a 17-year-old civil war, waged by an Islamic government against mainly Christian rebels in southern Sudan, in a “genocidal” effort to impose its strict interpretation of Muslim law.
It said the war has claimed some 2 million lives and displaced an additional 4 million to 5 million “mostly Christian and followers of animist religions.” It accuses the government of “crimes against humanity” and the deliberate bombing of churches.
The report recommends that the United States increase food aid to the south, outside U.N. channels, and encourage other governments to follow suit. In addition, the reports recommends that the president begin a 12-month campaign of incentives and disincentives to prompt Sudan’s government to improve religious freedom.
If that fails, the report recommends that the United States provide nonlethal humanitarian aid to the opposition groups.
The report said religious freedom in Russia is better now than before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
However, “Russia took a significant step backward in 1997” by enacting a law that undermines religious freedom, it said.
The commission also noted that Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin had decreed in March that all religious groups that do not register with the government by the end of this year should be liquidated.
The panel criticized the State Department for withholding documents related to Sudan, including embassy cables, despite government security clearances covering commission staff.
“This violates the spirit of Congress’ intent,” the report said.
Otherwise, it said, the department and other federal agencies had been generally cooperative with its efforts to document governmental abuses of religion.