(RNS) The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom saysreligious repression in China has worsened over the past weeks with thesentencing of several Falun Gong and Christian leaders to prison.

"The exercise of state power in trying to quash religious expression-- including arrests, imprisonment and the use of state-run media toslander people because of their religious practices, worship or teaching-- is alarming to all those who care about religious freedom," saidRabbi David Saperstein, chairman of the commission. "This can only setback China's current efforts to participate fully in a world communitycommitted to international rights and liberties."

Since the new year began, more than 100 practitioners of theoutlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement have been detained, includingthose who participated in silent protests in Tiananmen Square, accordingto the Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement,based in Hong Kong.

In December, Chinese courts sentenced four Falun Gong leaders toprison terms as long as 18 years. That same month Li Fujun, an assistantprofessor at a medical college in Henan province, became the ninth FalunGong leader jailed after receiving a four-year sentence forprotest-related activities, according to the Information Center.

Falun Gong -- a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chineseexercise -- has been banned in China since July 1999.

In late December, Chinese authorities sentenced six leaders ofProtestant Christian groups in central China to "labor education camps"for one- to three-year terms, according to the Information Center.

Saperstein said the commission will monitor closely the eventsunfolding in China, and will recommend the United States respond throughchanges in its foreign policy.

The commission was created by the International Religious FreedomAct passed by Congress in 1998 to give independent recommendations onissues of religious freedom and persecution to the executive branch andCongress.