Published: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

In China, freedom is spelled, "Falun Gong." The struggle against religious persecution inspires democracy lovers half a world away. At any other time, Falun Gong would be a cult, an odd Chinese sect of true believers to which most Americans wouldn't give a second thought.

But not now. Now, Falun Gong is an astounding movement in China, a devoted group carrying out what the Wall Street Journal claims is "arguably the most sustained challenge to authority in 50 years of Communist rule." As such it reaffirms important lessons to Westerners -- even here in the Red River Valley, even to those Americans all across our nation whose only flirtation with Chinese mysticism comes from renting an occasional Kung Fu movie.

The lessons are, "Faith moves mountains." And "freedom is an extraordinary thing."

Think back to the 1980s, and the visit to then-Communist Poland of Pope John Paul II. The pontiff spoke, the Russian empire trembled then cracked, and nothing would be the same again. You didn't have to be Catholic to be filled with hope by the pope's journey. In fact, you could have been the most determined atheist, with the utmost contempt for the pope's views on birth control and women in the priesthood, and still have cheered inwardly every time he celebrated Mass.

The struggles of Jewish people in the former Soviet Union, and the secret worship they sustained over decades of Communist rule, inspired similar respect. Again, you didn't have to be Jewish to admire the believers' bottomless courage, and to root for them in their life-and-death struggle.

Now Falun Gong. Did you know that every day in Beijing, several dozen Falun Gong members unfurl forbidden banners, and get arrested? That they do this knowing reports of torture have surfaced from Chinese jails? That one year ago today, 10,000 Falun Gong members gathered at the aptly named Forbidden City, home of the Chinese government -- and in a simple act of extreme courage, sat and meditated quietly?

China's infant free-speech movement seemed to end with Tienanmen Square. But the Falun Gong believers, seeking freedom of religion, haven't given up. Here in the Red River Valley, we don't have to agree with their faith to applaud them. Where religion is concerned, freedom lovers practice a kind of grand Unitarianism, recognizing that a threat to one faith is a threat to all. And an advance by one against oppression is an advance by all, too.