February 15, 2002

BEIJING--China arrested about 40 foreigners Thursday in Tiananmen Square for protesting the government's crackdown against the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Police chased and tackled the demonstrators after they chanted slogans and unfurled Falun Gong banners. They are one of several groups around the world attempting to raise awareness of China's record of religious repression as a scheduled visit to Beijing by President Bush next Thursday approaches.

The 40 foreign demonstrators from several countries including England and Germany were the second foreign group to protest at Tiananmen Square this week and the fourth since November.

"Members of various countries decided to go there to expose the truth about the persecution of Falun Gong in China," said Gail Rachlin, a spokeswoman for Falun Gong.

"There are innocent people being tortured and persecuted," she said. "We want President Bush to bring up this issue in his meeting with President Jiang Zemin."

New York-based Falun Gong activists said that between 50 and 100 members from Western countries had planned to demonstrate in Tiananmen Square. The group said an additional 14 Western followers were detained by Chinese police in their hotels before the protest.

Witnesses at the square said that hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police pursued and tackled the demonstrators, kicking and punching some of them in the face before wrestling them into vans. The protests forced police to briefly clear the square.

"The trouble caused by these Falun Gong members was intended to prevent the Chinese people from celebrating" police said, referring the Chinese lunar New Year.

China's repression of religion has been especially brutal toward Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist movement that was banned as a cult in 1999. Thousands of Chinese adherents have been detained, and international groups claim that several hundred have died in custody.

On Monday, a Chinese Christian group from New York called the Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China released a report citing internal Chinese government documents that purport to show how persecution against Christians originates at the highest levels of the government and includes the physical torture of victims.

Bush raised concerns last month about another case involving a Hong Kong man who faced the possibility of the death sentence for bringing 30,000 Bibles into China for use by a Christian sect that had been banned as a cult. Hong Kong businessman Li Guangqiang, originally charged with violating anti-cult laws, was convicted of a lesser charge and quickly released, an apparent concession ahead of the Bush visit.

Christianity is permitted in China but only through government-run churches. There is also a vibrant underground Christian movement that is often left alone but faces periodic, severe punishments, especially when groups are identified as a cult.

Chinese authorities deny mistreating detainees from Falun Gong or any other religious group. They have said some Falun Gong prisoners had died after refusing food or medical treatment.

Falun Gong became a target after it challenged the government by organizing public protests. In the last year, however, the Chinese adherents have nearly disappeared from public view.

On last year's lunar New Year, five people identified by Chinese authorities as Falun Gong followers set themselves on fire in the square. Falun Gong has denied its followers were involved in the Jan. 23, 2001, self-immolation that left two people dead.

Security was tight even before Thursday's protest. Westerners approaching the square were asked to show identification. Foreign journalists were turned away or restrained. At least seven foreign reporters were taken to a police station and questioned.

Chinese voices could be heard in the station shouting "Falun Gong is not a crime," though it was not known whether any Chinese nationals had also been detained.

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