MILWAUKEE, Feb. 23 (AP) - Each Sunday morning, a half-dozen people gather in a Milwaukee mall, standing quietly in a circle as soothing Chinese rhythms emanate from a portable cassette player.

They hold their arms in an arc at their hips, then above their heads, holding each stance for more than 15 minutes. After nearly an hour, they sit on the floor and meditate.

Their tranquil movements stand in stark contrast to the images on posters tacked up nearby, depicting oppression and torture. For these are followers of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement that has been banned in China; quietly, they have brought the movement's regimen of physical and spiritual exercises to Wisconsin and other parts of the United States.

Calling Falun Gong an ``evil cult,'' the Chinese government banned the practice in July 1999, beginning a crackdown in which followers claim thousands of people have been tortured. China accuses the sect of leading more than 1,600 followers to their deaths by encouraging them to eschew modern medical care and commit suicidal acts.

Some practitioners of Falun Gong are Chinese nationals who say they could be punished for taking part in it if they returned to China. Others are new non-Chinese devotees taking up the combination of physical stretching, meditation and religious readings. Followers claim it brings spiritual enlightenment and improved health.

In Wisconsin, groups have started in Milwaukee and Madison in the last three years. They've taken their place among many U.S. Falun Gong organizations.

Because there is no official membership, and people often practice in their homes or in small groups, it is impossible to estimate the number of followers in the United States, said Feng Yuan, a spokeswoman for the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York. Followers also refer to the movement as Falun Dafa.

Yuan said a New York conference two years ago drew more than 3,000 people, and there are thousands more across the country. The center's Web site has links to groups in 45 U.S. states.

Joyce Lee represents Falun Gong in Madison. Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Madison business student who is in the United States on an international visa, said she knows practitioners who were detained when trying to visit China.

She said she once received more than 2,000 anti-Falun Gong e-mail messages in one day, an apparent attempt to intimidate her. But she refuses to stop practicing and has registered the group as a public society at the university.

``We are benefiting from this exercise so much,'' Lee said. ``We are trying to be better people, to respect others - it's not a political thing.''

Others are not so sure.

In Milwaukee, Mayor John Norquist's office refused to grant a Falun Gong Day proclamation for a recent workshop at the public library. Though the city's proclamations are largely ceremonial, ``they're not supposed to be politically driven or involved in any other types of controversy,'' Norquist's policy director Steve Jacquart said.

``We're not in a position to check with the Chinese government or get to the bottom of what's really true,'' Jacquart said.

Liam O'Neill began a Milwaukee group in August after learning the practice at a Pennsylvania college. He regularly hands out flyers and posts notices in storefronts. His primary motivation, he says, is to inform people about human rights abuses in China.

He said while Chinese meditation might initially seem out of place in traditionally Lutheran Wisconsin, many people have expressed interest.

Falun Gong calms him and helps him be more understanding in his job as a high school math teacher, O'Neill said.

``I don't get anxious and depressed. I think that's because it gives me a confidence and an inner peace,'' he said.

Wenjiong Li, a UW-Milwaukee chemistry student from China, has practiced for four years. People from his hometown have been sent to labor camps for participating in Falun Gong, he said.

He doesn't know whether he'll return to China, where he too could face persecution.

``It's my belief. For my whole life it guides me,'' Li said. ``It teaches people to lead a good life.''

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