Religious Groups Offer Little Support to Chinese Sect

Forward, Aug. 9, 2002

They are a spiritual group claiming persecution under a Communist government, with dissidents who have consulted with American Soviet Jewry groups to learn how to attract the world’s attention to their cause. According to a damning congressional resolution which passed unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives two weeks ago, their government has killed at least 422 practitioners since banning the movement, tortured and sent to labor camps tens of thousands more and forced hundreds of thousands to attend “brainwashing classes.”

For all that, however, the China-based Falun Gong movement remains under the radar of most American religious organizations, including all but a few Jewish groups.

The relative apathy toward the Falun Gong has confounded its American supporters, who suspect that China has been effective in portraying the movement as an “evil cult,” and who acknowledge that the group’s eccentric practices — including its leader‘s claims that he can fly under his own power — tend to alienate Western religious groups.

“A lot of people do not understand who the Falun Gong are and what they are about,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “It will take the advocates of the rights of Falun Gong time to mobilize the kind of support that came more intuitively to members of western religions.”

Saperstein was the only representative of a major Jewish organization to speak at a rally in late July marking the three-year anniversary of the Chinese government’s decision to outlaw Falun Gong. Held on the west lawn of the Capitol building in Washington, the rally was attended by a number of politicians, including Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey, Ben Gilman of New York and Ileena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Non-governmental and religious organizations represented included Freedom House, the Family Research Council and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.

The rally did attract a statement of support from Felice Gaer, the chair of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, who is also the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

For Saperstein, however, the absence of other Jewish groups in the rally was noticeable, and not surprising. In the several years that that the Religious Action Center has sought religious freedom for the Falun Gong — in part through Saperstein’s own involvement as past chairman of the Commission on International Religious Freedom — “we were often the only Jewish group” at similar events.

The lack of widespread and active support from Jewish organizations is particularly striking considering that the Falun Gong movement has tried to pattern its advocacy after the successful efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

But a number of factors seem to be preventing the Falun Gong from attracting the same sort of interfaith support as did Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s, or mere recently the persecuted Christians in Sudan, North Korea and China.

For one, say observers, the Falun Gong does not fit into the paradigm of other persecuted religious groups; in fact, practitioners insist that Falun Gong is not a religion but a spiritual movement. Founded in 1992, the movement combines meditation exercises with a life philosophy based on truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.

Other activists might have been influenced by the Chinese government’s campaign to classify Falun Gong and its millions of followers as a cult, or have been disturbed by some of the bizarre claims of the movement’s founder, Li Hongzhi, including that he has the ability to heal diseases and to fly. Falun Gong followers are also said to have the movement’s emblem imprinted on their bellies and to claim to be able to stop approaching cars using Li’s teachings.

More pragmatically, the Falun Gong movement lacks a centralized organization, and so is at a disadvantage in coordinating outreach to other religious groups. Alan Adler, executive director of the Tenafly, N.J.-based Friends of Falun Gong, acknowledges that the movement has yet to reach out effectively to other religions.

According to Michael Horowitz, director of the Project for International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute, the Chinese were banking on the unfamiliarity and eccentricity of the Falun Gong when they chose its practitioners for persecution.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday August 10, 2002.
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