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The White House raises with Chinese officials the issue of a visa refusal for a U.S. religious freedom envoy.
02/16/2012 China (ChinaAid) –  U.S.-based Christian groups have voiced concern over the recent refusal of a visa to a U.S. religious freedom envoy who had been scheduled to visit China from Feb. 8, saying the move could herald a harsher line on religion.
News on the refusal of a Chinese visa to Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, came amid a U.S. visit this week by Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping and Beijing’s large-scale military crackdown in Tibetan-populated areas in the wake of a string of self-immolation protests by monks and nuns.
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said the refusal of a visa to a senior State Department envoy was unprecedented.
“This diplomatic act by China is rude and irresponsible,” Fu said. “But I think that the silence from the Obama administration on this event is a serious mistake.”
“It will encourage the continued trampling on human rights and religious freedoms with impunity,” he said.
The White House said late Wednesday that it had raised the issue with Chinese officials and underscored the importance of a dialogue about religious freedom and Cook’s visit in particular.
The officials said that Beijing is trying to fix a date for Cook’s visit, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“The Chinese noted that Ambassador Cook’s predecessors, as well as the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, have visited China on numerous occasions for discussion on religious freedom and related issues, and they are working on dates for Ambassador Cook’s future visit,” he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama “has regularly underscored the importance of religious freedom generally and in China particularly,” Carney said.

It was unclear whether Cook’s visa denial was mentioned during talks between Xi and Obama in Washington on Tuesday.

According to Zhejiang-based house church pastor Luo Sennian, who was recently detained and beaten by police during a planning meeting for the group’s Christmas worship, increased pressure from the U.S. would bring relief to China’s unofficial Christians, who face regular threats, detentions, intimidation, and official harassment for their activities.
“[Our church] grew from just four or five people to 200-300 people who come to meetings currently,” Luo said. “The police have raided our meetings a number of times, saying we aren’t allowed to gather.”
“They want us to move to larger premises, to a place specified by the government, but our older brothers and sisters can’t get there, so we want to remain here.”
“So the police have attacked us a number of times.”
Last December, the entire Luo family was taken to the local police station where they were detained and interrogated for 9-1/2 hours for “holding an illegal religious gathering,” ChinaAid said in a statement at the time.
While leaders of China’s unofficial churches, which overseas groups estimate as having some 40 million followers, say their activities have little to do with politics or human rights, raids on unofficial worship have been stepped up in a recent nationwide security clampdown.
The 1,000-strong congregation of Beijing’s Shouwang Protestant church has had problems finding a venue to hold services, a situation that leaders blame on government interference.
Protestant worshipers in southwestern Sichuan province also say they have come under heavy pressure from local officials to register with China’s official Protestant body, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
“House” churches, which operate without official registration documents and without the involvement of the local religious affairs bureaus, come in for surveillance and repeated raids, especially in the more rural areas of the country, according to overseas rights groups.

Officially an atheist country, China nonetheless has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in the wake of massive social change and economic uncertainty since economic reforms began 30 years ago.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn’t recognized, and worship in nonrecognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
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