01/08/2004, 00.00
hong kong - china
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"Low-key" visit by US religious freedom watchdog angers Beijing

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/agencies) – The US Commission on International Religious Freedom concluded its Jan. 2-7 visit to Hong Kong yesterday, after consulting local religious leaders and human rights activists on the state of religious freedom in China and its territories. The commission's spokeswoman said the meetings were a "low-key, normal exchange of information"; yet the trip was hotly contested by the government in Beijing.

Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun is one of several religious leaders who met privately with the commission's delegates. He acknowledged the commission's visit would "definitely make Beijing unhappy," and said he would not refuse anyone who wants to know his views about the situation of the Church in China. He added that he was not worried the meeting might affect relations between the Catholic Church in China and in Hong Kong.

However he wondered about the value and practicality of the trip, saying that United States and western countries are more interested in developing business affairs with China than in improving its religious freedom policies.

The bishop explained: "They could yell and make noise once or twice, but after that, they would be back doing business again. They could never work for improvement, unless all western countries said they won't do business (with countries with poor records on religious freedom)." 

According to other religious rights activists who met with the religious freedom watchdog, the issue of greatest concern was how "postponed" changes to Hong Kong National Security Bill would have a negative impact on religious freedom in Hong Kong since its reversion to China in 1997. The national bill would have outlawed religious and activist groups in the territory having connections with banned mainland organizations (e.g. the Falun Gong "sect") and empowered police forces even more to conduct searches and raids on religious institutions and individuals without a prior court-approved warrant.

An unidentified member of a Catholic organization who met with the commission said that the visit would not worsen relations between the Chinese government and the Church in Hong Kong, since the Hong Kong dioceses "is already being punished". He cited that its website has been blocked in the mainland since July 2003, the month in which 500,000 persons in Hong Kong demonstrated for full democracy and against the national security bill.   

The commission's trip to Hong Kong came in preparation for a projected tour of the mainland, which has been cancelled twice over the past 5 months, after the Chinese government demanded it not hold such "inappropriate" meetings in Hong Kong.

The government's demands became stronger, as of last Dec. 18, when the US State Department issued an annual report categorizing China as "a country of particular concern". The report stated that China's government is among those totalitarian regimes which persecute and exhibit tight control over religious worship, considering it a threat to their dominant political ideologies.  In vehement response, Beijing demanded that the US government refrain from further "interfering" in the country's internal affairs.(MS)  


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