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China Cracks Down on Inner Mongolia Temple

Authorities arrest a Buddhist leader after allowing his U.S.-based followers to arrange a $3-million renovation of the 800-year-old shrine.

August 20, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — It was supposed to be a heartfelt cultural exchange between Chinese and Americans, a $3-million gift from followers of a Buddhist group in Los Angeles to repair a centuries-old temple in China. The site, reportedly built during the rule of Kublai Khan eight centuries ago, was desecrated during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and was badly in need of help.

After months of renovation, invitations were printed up for the grand reopening of the Dari Rulai Xingyuan Temple in Inner Mongolia. Three hundred Buddhists from China, Japan, the United States and Canada were descending on the small town of Kulun to celebrate.

Suddenly everything went wrong, followers said Thursday. In the days leading up to the party scheduled for last Saturday, police, firefighters, undercover detectives and army troops broke down temple doors, arrested the church's spiritual leader on charges of "inciting superstition," carted away two truckloads of precious artifacts and closed the temple, citing "structural danger."

"They invited us in, said, 'You did a beautiful job,' took our money then kicked us out," said Robert Stubblefield, vice abbot of the City of Industry-based Dari Rulai Temple, who had stayed at the Kulun temple for eight months. "This has been a huge shock to everyone."

Followers of the 1,400-year-old Hanmi Buddhist sect say that all the necessary permits were approved and that their members were warmly embraced by Kulun officials keen to boost tourism and the local economy.

As is often the case in China, questions about whose fist came down and why outnumber answers. The impetus may have come from above. The central government hasn't been particularly warm toward religion recently -- despite the right to practice freely enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.

"We're just the small guys cooperating with upper bureaus," a Kulun police officer, who declined to give his name, said in a telephone interview. "We have to go along with them."

In recent months, eight Catholic priests in Hebei province and three bishops in other parts of China have been detained, despite protests from the Vatican. The detentions followed the arrests of 100 activists from independent Protestant churches in central China. Beijing, meanwhile, continues its long-running battle against worship by Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists that are not among the state-sanctioned religious practices.

Although Beijing has given up its bid to wipe out religion as an "opiate of the masses," analysts say, its strategy these days is to repress, control and otherwise harness the growing popularity of organized faith in the service of the Communist Party.

"The central problem is that the state has the power to define and vet religion, and it uses this," said Nicholas Becquelin, Hong Kong-based research director with Human Rights in China. "They're also extremely sensitive to any activities involving foreigners, particularly Americans."

Adding to the perils for worshipers in China are the overlapping arms of government, including a religious affairs bureau under the State Council that issues permits and various public security branches that oversee enforcement.

Officials with local and regional Inner Mongolia police forces and the religious oversight office in Beijing either were unavailable for comment or declined to discuss the case.

"Anyone trying to follow a religion outside official Chinese channels risks torture, long prison terms and being banned as a heretical organization," said Mark Allison, London-based China researcher with Amnesty International.

"Freedom of religion in China, no matter what the authorities say, doesn't conform to international standards of religious freedom," he said.

The U.S. Embassy has said it will take up the treatment of the American group with the Foreign Ministry.

For the small group of American followers of the Hanmi sect, who were sitting around a table in Beijing after being hounded out of Kulun by security officials, it's been quite a week.

"Being a California kid, I never got out that much, then to have this kind of thing happen," said Grace Chan, a teacher from Arcadia and a Hanmi follower. "At one point, the police tried to get us in their car. We didn't trust them. You never know where you'd end up."

The group's biggest worry now is the fate of their master, Yu Tianjian, 54, who the group says is one of 33 living Buddhas recognized by the Chinese government.

Yu, also known as Living Buddha Dechan Jueren, is being held at an unknown location on the charges of inciting superstition, after reportedly being lured off the temple grounds last week by local officials claiming they needed to confer about the arriving guests.

"They took our teacher away and never came back," said Dan Kendall, a vice abbot of the City of Industry temple, the group's main facility in Los Angeles.

Over the next several days, authorities repeatedly refused to say where he was and why their organization was the subject of a crackdown, followers say, as local security forces broke into the Kulun temple, dragged out and detained 50 priests in the middle of a purification ceremony and carted off valuables.

To further pressure the group to leave, police and army units cut off all electricity and water to the complex, blocked incoming buses filled with celebrants from abroad and shut down a local Internet cafe to prevent communication with the outside world, followers said.

"This temple has a lot of historical significance," Stubblefield said as he fingered a string of wooden beads. "It's a national treasure, although you'd never know it from the way it's being treated."

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