(CNSNews.com) - Ahead of his trip to Asia on Thursday, White House officials have said trade, nuclear weapons and global warming will be top priorities when President Barack Obama meets with leaders of Pacific Rim nations, but the non-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging Obama to make human rights violations a centerpiece of his visit to China.
In a letter sent to the president on Monday, the commission called religious freedom and the rule of law "crucial issues" in the relationship between the U.S. and China.
"During your visit, we urge you to raise critical issues of religious freedom and the rule of law with Chinese officials, seek meetings with prominent human rights defenders and repressed religious leaders, and make a strong public statement about the importance of human rights to the future of U.S.-China relations," the commission wrote.
"The trip is an opportunity to dispel any notion that human rights and religious freedoms are not priorities, and to set the record straight on any of the Administration’s prior statements on the place of human rights in our bilateral relationship with China," it added.
Officials in the Obama administration have said in recent days that the president wants to emphasize the important relationships the United States has with Asians nations.
"Through President Obama's trip, I think it will be vividly clear to the peoples of Asia that the U.S. is here to stay in Asia," Jeffrey Bader, director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said in remarks made at the liberal Brookings Institution on Friday.
"We are a vital contributor to Asian security and economic success. Asia, in turn, has a profound impact on our lives through trade, through our alliances and partnerships, and through the immigrants who have come to the U.S. to enormously enrich our country in every domain," Bader said.
In the letter, the commission said religious freedom should also define those relationships, particularly with China.
"The Chinese government has accommodated some religious practice, but repression of peaceful religious activity remains intense and widespread, focusing on unregistered Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners and religious groups the government considers ‘evil cults,’" the commission wrote.
"In Tibetan and Uighur areas of China, repression of religious freedom has created deep resentments that cannot be mitigated by the inappropriate use of force or other repressive measures. Repression of peaceful Uighur and Tibetan religious practice has fueled, not solved or resolved, ethnic unrest," the commission added.
The commission asks in the letter that the president address specific human rights issues while he's in China, including the torture and imprisonment of religious leaders and human rights defenders.
The commission said Obama should ask Chinese officials about the disappearance of human rights activists, such as lawyer Gao Zhiseng, Catholic Bishops Su Zhimin and Wu Qinjing, and the Dalai Lama’s chosen Panchen Lama Gendun Choekyi Nyima.
In the letter, the commissioners suggest that Obama "meet with 'unregistered' religious leader, attend one of their worship services, and encourage Chinese officials to continue taking steps to allow independent registration of Protestant 'house churches.' "
The White House has said China figures into much of Obama's agenda to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the regimes in Iran and North Korea, reduce global warming and stabilize the world economy.
"None of these challenges can be addressed without intensive involvement by China," Bader said on Friday.
But the commission's letter states that addressing human rights abuses in China should also be a priority.
"The international community should not ignore or remain silent in the face of continued persecution in China in the hopes of finding common ground on other important global concerns," the letter states. "Instead it should recognize that human rights protections and the advancement of the rule of law are critically intertwined with many international interests in China."