NEW YORK — Three leading American clergymen back from a three-week investigation of religious freedom in China reported guarded hope Wednesday that authorities will begin easing restrictions on worship as a result of the clerics' talks with President Jiang Zemin and other senior officials.
They cited no immediate results of their February visit but stressed the unprecedented and candid nature of their discussions with the Chinese leadership. They also noted China's recently announced decision to sign the U.N. covenant on human rights, which includes freedom of worship.
"We tried to convey to the leadership that in order to move the relationship forward between the United States and China, it is imperative to address the issue of religious freedom," said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation and a member of the delegation.
During the clergymen's 65-minute session with Jiang, the Chinese president acknowledged that religion could play a positive role in China and suggested that "differences can be gradually narrowed and common ground broadened" between the Chinese and Western views on worship, the men said in their official report, which was released at a news conference here Wednesday.
In addition, Don Argue, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, cited unspecified "signs of progress" toward the release of some prisoners of conscience mentioned by the Americans in their talks with the Chinese.
Chinese repression of religious communities has emerged as a growing source of friction between Beijing and Western human rights groups and as a rallying point for opposition to the Clinton administration's policy of engagement with the Chinese regime. President Clinton named the three-man delegation following his October summit with Jiang in Washington. Besides Schneier and Argue, it included the Rev. Theodore McCarrick, Roman Catholic archbishop of Newark, N.J.
During their visit, the clerics conferred with Jiang and other Chinese officials and visited churches, temples, a mosque, monasteries, a nunnery, seminaries and a prison in Tibet where many of the inmates are Buddhist monks and nuns. Although Chinese law requires that churches and other religious facilities register with the state, the delegation also visited underground and unregistered churches. Argue was permitted to preach at a church.
But the clergymen were turned back in attempts to meet with four of China's most celebrated religious prisoners of conscience, including Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 8-year-old boy designated by the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, the second-most-important spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.
The clergymen were told that the boy and his parents were safe in Chinese custody, and they were offered an audience with the child put forward by the government as an alternative Panchen Lama. They declined.
The clerics said they observed signs of a strong revival of Christianity that belied official estimates that there are only about 100 million religious observers in the country of 1.2 billion people.
The report's optimism may be greeted skeptically by many human rights groups.
A State Department official said Chinese officials may have been able to cover up their worst abuses but added that "if this is an opening to more U.S. religious leaders traveling and choosing their own agenda, then it is an important step."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.