Friday, 08-Aug-2003 10:20AM

Story from AFP / Matthew Lee
Copyright 2003 by Agence France-Presse (via ClariNet)

WASHINGTON, Aug 8 (AFP) - The US government's religious rights monitor said Friday it had postponed a planned visit to China next week to protest what it called "unacceptable" restrictions placed on the trip by Beijing.

"The US Commission on International Religious Freedom ... is disappointed that a scheduled visit to China in early August 2003 could not proceed as planned due to unacceptable last-minute conditions imposed upon (its) visit by the Chinese government," it said.

The commission complained that two weeks ago Chinese authorities had demanded that Hong Kong be dropped from the itinerary and that with only days to go before the trip they had still not confirmed meetings with senior officials.

"Nor did the commission receive assurances it would be able to visit prominent religious houses of worship and meet privately with religious leaders," it said in a statement.

"In light of the circumstances and last-minute limitations that the Chinese government imposed, the commission could not accede to the conditions and the trip was postponed," it said.

Negotiations for the trip had been underway since February and the commission said it had made clear that a visit to Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, was "integral" to its tour.

Beijing's "insistence" that the commission not visit Hong Kong raises questions about China's stated commitment to giving the former British territory substantial independence under its "one country, two systems" policy, it said.

"This action on the part of the Chinese government suggests a degree of Chinese control over foreign access to Hong Kong that is unprecedented and in contradiction to the concept of one country, two systems," commission chairman Michael Young said.

"It further raises the concern that just six years after the handover, Hong Kong's autonomy is already seriously in doubt," he said. "As a commission concerned with religious and related rights, we cannot possibly accede to such a condition."

The US State Department said it understood the visit trip "unfortunately" had been postponed in order to clarify the itinerary and called for the commission and China to reach a compromise speedily.

"We urge that the trip take place as soon as possible," deputy spokesman Philip Reeker said.

The commission, created by the 1998 US International Religious Freedom Act to give independent recommendations to the executive branch and the Congress, is an autonomous federal agency that has been highly critical of China in the past.

It has regularly identified China as a leading violator of religious freedoms, accusing Beijing of torturing, imprisoning and mistreating Protestant, Catholic and Tibetan Buddhist believers.

It has also taken issue with Beijing's [persecution of] practitioners of the Falungong spiritual group.

Just last month, the commission's vice-chairman, Felice Gaer told US lawmakers that the United States had to "consistently remind" Chinese authorities of the importance of protecting religious freedom.

"The rights of the Chinese people must be protected, and the United States should be prepared to assist in this regard," Gaer told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on July 29.


China retains tight control over religious activities, especially in its tense Tibet and Xinjiang regions, fearing that religion could be used to spread separatist beliefs.

In recent years, it has [persecuted] a wide range of religious groups, including about a dozen mainly evangelical groups, after it became alarmed by their popularity, including the Falungong, which Beijing outlawed [...] in 1999.

China officially allows places of worship to operate if they are registered with the state and adhere to state mandates on religion.

But millions worship at unofficial churches, some of which are tolerated more than others.