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Commission urges President to boycott Olympic opening unless China changes

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WASHINGTON (BP)–China’s crackdown on Tibetans’ religious freedom has caused the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to urge President Bush not to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games this summer without marked improvement by the communist government.

The 2008 Olympics, slated Aug. 8-24, already had stirred up controversy because of the selection of Beijing as the host. The government’s continued abuse of Tibetans, among the worst examples of religious repression in China, has added to USCIRF’s concerns, according to a commission statement released April 4.

China’s policies toward Tibet have fueled protests and resentment. The Chinese recently met what began as a peaceful protest by Buddhist monks in Tibet with sometimes lethal force. As many as 140 people died during the protests and crackdown, The Washington Post reported. Monks at Jokhang Temple told foreign reporters visiting Lhasa, Tibet’s regional capital, that religious repression was the focus of Tibetans’ complaints, the USCIRF statement said.

“The totalitarian leaders of China desperately wanted the Olympic games in order to symbolize their ascendance into the first rank of world nations,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a USCIRF vice chair. “They need to understand that the true respect they so earnestly desire in the international community will only come when they reject the barbaric and brutal methods they are employing against Tibetan religious dissidents and religious dissidents in other parts of the country.

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“I believe one way to send this message is for the president of the United States to publicly state that he is not going to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics unless and until there is significant improvement in China’s treatment of its own religious dissidents and religious dissidents in Tibet,” Land said.

Bush has made no statements implying he will boycott the Olympics. Pressure is mounting, however, and not just from USCIRF.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., has suggested the president consider a boycott of the opening, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton of New York has called on Bush to take such action.

On April 9, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced he would not attend the opening ceremony, according to The New York Times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel already had declared her intention to be absent from the ceremony.

USCIRF made several suggestions concerning the Olympics and Tibet, including:

— If Bush decides to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics, he should first visit Lhasa or another Tibetan area to affirm U.S. commitment to religious freedom for Tibetans and for China’s other growing religious communities.

— The president also should seek to meet with prisoners and others detained by China because of their expression or advocacy of religious liberty and other human rights.

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— Bush should attend an unregistered church to underscore Beijing’s suppression of religious exercise.

— The U.S. government should ask for unfettered access to Tibetan regions to examine the situation and visit jailed monks.

On April 9, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 413-1 for a resolution calling on China to end its violence toward Tibet and enter into a peaceful conversation with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled leader. Only Rep. Ron Paul, R.-Texas, voted “no.”

USCIRF had urged the House and Senate to adopt a measure calling for discussions to achieve genuine freedom of religion, allowing ethnic minorities to be “master[s] of their own affairs” while continuing China’s sovereignty.

“For too long, the Chinese have employed a ‘security’ approach to Tibetan Buddhism — preferring repression, control of leadership decisions, castigation of the Dalai Lama and ‘patriotic education’ over freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” USCIRF Chair Michael Cromartie said in the written statement. “That approach is no longer viable; in fact, it is counterproductive. Fully guaranteeing freedom of religion is a necessary first condition for any negotiations regarding Tibet.”

To guarantee religious freedom for Tibetans, the USCIRF recommended that China immediately undertake the following actions:

— “Lifting restrictions that are the source of resentment and protest;

— “Announcing an end to all ‘patriotic education’ programs;

— “Repealing new laws requiring government approval of [Dalai and Panchen] lamas;

— “Affirming that minors should be able to engage in religious education at any age;

— “Ensuring safe passage for Tibetans traveling to Nepal or India;

— “Announcing that devotion to the Dalai Lama, including displaying and venerating his picture, is not a criminal act;

— “Unconditionally releasing all detained monks and nuns.”

In calling for China to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, USCIRF said religious freedom cannot be recognized without acknowledging his religious authority in Tibet.

China is one of eight countries designated by the U.S. State Department as “countries of particular concern,” marking it as one of the world’s most severe violators of religious liberty. Beijing has carried out its repression not only against Tibetan Buddhists but Protestants in unregistered churches, Catholics faithful to the Vatican, Uighur Muslims and the Falun Gong.

USCIRF advises the White House and Congress on the condition of religious liberty in other countries. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six.
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Katherine Kipp is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.