(CNSNews.com) - As President Bush prepares to visit China next week, the sensitive issue of human rights -- and especially the right to religious freedom -- is threatening to dominate the agenda.
Rights campaigners are urging Bush to tackle the subject in face-to-face talks with China's communist leaders, a call echoed in recent days by lawmakers Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif).
Since late last week, several new cases of religious persecution have been reported, even as the State Department in its annual assessment of religious freedom named China, for the seventh consecutive year, as a "country of particular concern."
In what has become standard response to U.S. criticism on its human rights record, Beijing said Thursday it strongly rejected the report's findings.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao accused Washington of interfering in China's domestic affairs and denied the allegations, saying all ethnic groups and people across the country enjoyed religious freedom.
Liu also protested against Bush's meeting on Wednesday with the Dalai Lama.
China, which has occupied Tibet since 1950, opposes meetings between political leaders and the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader.
"The Dalai Lama is not a simple religious figure but a political exile who engages in activities to split the country," Liu told a press briefing.
Regardless of differences between the U.S. and China, the spokesman said the importance of Bush's visit "will not be diminished due to any single issue."
Campaigners and experts charge that, despite Beijing's denials, the human rights situation in China is getting worse.
"The scope of political openness and public activism and civil and individual freedoms is actually now narrowing in China," U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chairman Michael Cromartie said this week.
"Economic freedom, as some had hoped, has not led to more religious and political freedom and human rights protection."
Cromartie was speaking in Washington, where the commission on Wednesday released a new report finding that Beijing continues systematically to violate freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion, contravening its own constitution and international norms.
The report stems from a visit by commission members to China last August.
Abuses occur as a result of a drive to eradicate groups considered cults or evil influences, such as the Falun Gong meditation movement, and as a result of campaigns against separatists, Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.
Unregistered Catholics -- those who worship in secret and are loyal to the Pope rather than to a "patriotic" state Catholic association -- also face maltreatment, as do members of underground Protestant house churches outside an official "patriotic" Protestant organization.
Cromartie said the Chinese authorities appear to think the existence of state-controlled religious bodies constitutes freedom of religion.
"They have mistaken -- cynically or inadvertently -- the proliferation of state-sanctioned and state-controlled religious expression with the guarantee of the individual right of freedom or religion or belief."
Reports of abuses continue
In the same week as the State Department and commission issued their critical reports, new violations have been reported from China.
Cai Zhuohua, the 34-year-old pastor of an underground Protestant church, was jailed for three years for illegally printing Bibles and other Christian publications.
The China Aid Association (CAA) reports that a Beijing court also fined Cai $20,000. His wife and brother-in-law also were jailed and fined.
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the charges followed the discovery of 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian literature in a storage room.
"Pastor Cai's case is of interest as it highlights both the restrictions on literature production and demonstrates a new tactic of restraining religious freedom under the guise of prosecution for 'economic crimes,' " the campaign group said.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported a "notable increase" in reports of persecution against unregistered Protestants.
"Punishments include imprisonment, torture, humiliating treatment, fines, welfare deductions, withholding of medical treatment, church and business closures and confiscation of valuables and religious materials."
In another incident reported to the CAA this week, six house church leaders where arrested in Henan province on Sunday. Four were later released but the other two told they would be held until their groups disbanded or registered with the "patriotic" church organization.
Last Friday, Beijing judicial authorities ordered a legal firm known for defending human rights to be shut down. The firm run by Gao Zhisheng was one of those defending Cai, and also been involved in some high-profile Falun Gong cases.
Meanwhile, a 70-year-old underground Roman Catholic bishop was arrested in Hebei Province on Tuesday, the Connecticut-based Cardinal Kung Foundation reported.
Bishop Jia Zhi Guo, who has in the past served 20 years in prison, was taken off by police one day after two other clergymen from his diocese were arrested, said the foundation's president, Joseph Kung.
"For those who advocate that free-trade with China will change China's human rights abuses, it will be difficult for them to produce evidence of progress in this area," he said.
The foundation is named for Kung Pin-Mei, elevated as a Cardinal by the Pope in 1979 while in prison. After 30 years behind bars and another 10 under house arrest, Kung was allowed to travel to the U.S. in 1987 for medical treatment. He died in 2000, aged 98.
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