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Religious freedom panel cancels trip to China

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom again has canceled a scheduled trip to China because of restrictions by the Beijing government.

The USCIRF, which investigates global religious liberty conditions, had planned to send a team to China in December. The commission announced Dec. 8 it would not do so because the communist government had limited its access to Hong Kong. Beijing would have permitted the group to make a stop in Hong Kong but not hold meetings, according to the USCIRF.

It is the second time this year a trip to China has been canceled. In July, Beijing required the commission to drop Hong Kong from its travel plans, a condition the USCIRF found unacceptable.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was to be a member of the USCIRF group traveling to China.

“The commission could not agree to those changes without compromising our longstanding policies in regard to how the commission conducts its business,” said Land, who is in his third year as a USCIRF commissioner. “I am hopeful that we will be able to come to an acceptable understanding regarding a visit in the near future.”

USCIRF Chairman Michael Young said in a written statement the panel had been placed in an “untenable position” by the Chinese government.

“Although we are encouraged by the demonstrated willingness of the Chinese side to schedule meetings for the commissioners with relevant leaders on the mainland,” Young said, “we are disappointed that the Hong Kong issue has again become a hindrance between our two countries, standing in the way of a productive interaction on religious freedom.

“A successful commission visit to China is in the interest of both our countries,” he said.

China is one of the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom. It is among six countries designated by the Department of State as “countries of particular concern.” The other five are Burma, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.

Chinese policy requires churches to register with the government. China’s repressive practices, which have included arrest, imprisonment and torture, have affected not only Protestants but Catholics, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and the Falun Gong sect as well.

The USCIRF makes reports and policy recommendations to Congress and the White House. The president and congressional leaders appoint the nine members who serve as commissioners.

President Bush appointed the ERLC’s Land to the panel in 2001. Land’s second term, which is one year, will expire next May.