WASHINGTON -- A federal advisory panel created to promote religious rights declared today that China should be denied permanent normal trade status until it makes ''substantial improvement'' in allowing its people the freedom to worship.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its report, accused China, Sudan and, to a lesser degree, Russia of hindering religious practices.
At the same time, the panel criticized the State Department for withholding documents related to Sudan, including embassy cables, despite government security clearances covering commission staff.
''This violates the spirit of Congress's intent,'' the report said. Otherwise, it said, the department and other federal agencies have been generally cooperative in its efforts to document governmental abuses of religion.
Congress established the 10-member commission to meet concerns that U.S. foreign policy has not adequately addressed persecution of Christians and other religious groups around the world. Headed by Rabbi David Saperstein, the commission includes religious, academic, legal and human rights specialists appointed by congressional leaders and the president.
''Since its first meeting in June 1999, the commission has found religious freedom under serious threat in a number of countries,'' the report said. It held a series of hearings and meetings focusing on China, Sudan and Russia.
''While many commissioners support free trade, the commission believes that the U.S. Congress should grant China Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) only after China makes substantial improvement in respect for religious freedom,'' the report said.
The Clinton administration, with the support of the Republican leadership in Congress, has made PNTR for China a major priority, but many Democrats and some Republicans oppose it. The status would give China's exports to the United States the same favorable conditions that other nations enjoy and ease China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
In a series of sweeping declarations, the commission also called for tightening sanctions against Sudan and possibly aiding opposition groups in the African nation; placing unprecedented restrictions on U.S. stock offerings that might help oppressive nations, denying any bid by China to host the Olympics and inviting the exiled Dalai Lama to address a joint meeting of Congress.
Recommended action on Russia was less forceful.
The panel called for continued monitoring of the treatment of non-Russian Orthodox Christians as well as Jews. It also said President Vladimir Putin should be pressed to reverse a 1997 edict requiring liquidation of non-registered religious groups and to extend the visas of religious workers in Russia.
For the future, the commission said it would continue to watch progress in Sudan, China and Russia and expand its watchdog role to include other nations.
In what would be a boon to proselytizing American churches, the commission announced it would evaluate U.S. policy options to promote globally the ''right to change one's faith and the right to seek to persuade others to change theirs.''
The State Department, under the same law that created the commission, has designated Sudan and China as ''countries of particular concern'' because of restrictions of religious freedom.
The commission blamed Khartoum's Islamic government for oppression of Christians and traditional African religions in the south.
On China, the commission cited an increase in violations of religious freedom over the past year, against the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Tibetan Buddhists and Roman Catholic and Protestant underground ''house churches.'' China allows only sanctioned Christian churches.
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