- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

Visiting Chinese religious leaders were to return home Monday after a 10-day visit to the U.S. that included a last-minute threat by the Chinese Embassy to cancel an event with U.S.-based religious and human rights advocates if the Dalai Lama’s representative and a former political prisoner took part, participants said.

As a result, previously extended invitations to special envoy Lodi Gyari and Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in a labor camp, were withdrawn less than three hours before dinner Thursday evening, which was hosted by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP).

“This dinner was supposed to foster an open dialogue, according to the Chinese, but it appears they want such dialogue even in America only on their terms,” one participant said.

The embassy notified the institute Thursday afternoon that Mr. Gyari’s and Mr. Wu’s presence at the dinner was “unacceptable,” another participant said. The hosts called the two men to apologize and asked them to send other representatives of their respective organizations.

Mr. Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, said in an interview that he sent an aide, as did Mr. Gyari, who heads the International Campaign for Tibet. Laogai is “China’s extensive system of forced-labor prison camps,” Mr. Wu said. He was sent there, he added, because of his Roman Catholic religion.

The Chinese Embassy declined to confirm the account and did not respond to e-mail messages seeking comment about the dinner and the visit in general.

Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and Taoist leaders from organizations approved by the Chinese government were paying for what was billed as a historic 10-day visit to the United States. A Chinese Confucian scholar also participated. The group, scheduled to return to China on Monday, was accompanied by officials from China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).

Mr. Wu said that the expected discussion on religious freedom did not take place at Thursday’s dinner. “If you really want to come to the United States, you have to be ready to answer any questions,” he said.

Participants at the event said the Chinese Embassy asked that the planned “open-question format be nixed” in favor of “dinner conversation.” But because there were several tables, and all Chinese guests sat together, only nine of the more than 40 participants had a chance to talk to the visitors at the head table.

That small group included Jim Nicholson and Thomas Melady, former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican; David Shear, director of the State Department´s China office; Thomas Farr of Georgetown University; and Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, who is also a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“I was quite pleased with the overall discussion,” said Joseph Grieboski, IRPP´s founder and president. “The Chinese were not defensive. There were difficult questions, and they gave the official party line. One of them said that he wanted to say more but couldn’t.”

Ms. Shea said she “spoke frankly” to longtime SARA official Guo Wei and “raised specific well-known cases with her,” but she said she was not familiar with them.

“[Ms. Guo] promised to look into any list I gave her. I sent the list through the Chinese Embassy ,” Ms. Shea said. “She also said that religious leaders are jailed in China for ‘breaking the law’ and not for religious reasons We got into a discussion on just laws and inalienable rights.”

In addition to the dinner, visitors participated in events at the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University last week. They also met with officials at the State Department and on Capitol Hill.

“There were informative, frank and open discussions about the role of religion in China, and an opportunity for the religious leaders to share some of their experiences with people here,” said Dee Froeber, a minister at the Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., who helped facilitate the visit. “There were differences of opinion, definitions and solutions” regarding religious freedom, he said. “But the visit was an excellent first step for the [Chinese] leaders to have a dialogue with people who care deeply about these issues in the United States.”

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