WASHINGTON, May 23 (RNS)--As the House prepares to vote onestablishing permanent normal trade relations with China, the U.S.religious community finds itself sharply divided on the issue--sometimes along unusual lines.

At issue is what works better--a carrot or a stick--in bringingabout changes in China's human rights practices, especially toward religiousand political democratic movements.

Recently, a group of 21 prominent religious leaders opted forthe carrot.

"The gradual opening of trade, investment, travel, and exchangebetween China and the rest of the world has led to significant, positivechanges for human rights and religious freedom in China," the group saidin a May 17 letter to members of Congress.

The makeup of the group broke with conventional religious andpolitical stereotypes. The group includes: the Rev. Don Argue, formerpresident of the National Association of Evangelicals; the Rev. AndrewYoung, president of the National Council of Churches; John Buehrens,head of the Unitarian Universalist Association; and Charles A. Davis ofthe Evangelical Alliance Missions. Signers also included a number oforganizations with ministries devoted to China.

"China is more likely to observe international norms of behavior ifwe recognize it as an equal responsible partner in the community ofnations," said Ned Stowe of the Friends Committee on NationalLegislation, the Quaker lobby group and organizer of the letter.

Another signer, the Rev. Daniel Su, was born in China, convertedto Christianity, and now works for the Fairfax, Va.-based China OutreachMinistries. Su recently testified before the House Ways and MeansCommittee that "as a clergyman concerned about religious freedom andother human rights issues in China," he was "particularly excited" thatnormal trade relations "will bring about dynamic changes in China."

A closely divided House is expected to vote as soon as Wednesday ongranting China permanent normal trade relations, which would open up andexpand markets in China and increase trade between the United States andChina. Opponents of the bill say it rides roughshod over concerns aboutChina's human rights policies as well as its history of labor abuses.They also fear it will destroy American jobs.

To meet those objections, a bipartisan group of lawmakers hasproposed legislation that would establish a human rights watchdogcommission that would monitor Chinese human rights practices. Themonitoring legislation is expected to be brought to the floor at thesame time as the trade relations bill.

But even as the debate unfolds, China continues to take actions thatspur opposition to the U.S. trade deal and similar negotiations betweenChina and the European Union on Beijing's entry into the World TradeOrganization.

Last week, news reports from China said authorities hadclosed down churches and arrested at least 10 leaders of undergroundChristian groups. The reports cited a lengthy commentary in theGuangming Daily that said, "We must emphasize strengthening managementof religious affairs within the law."

At the time, Mervyn Thomas, executive director of ChristianSolidarity Worldwide, said the arrests "are part of a downward turn inChina's record on religious freedom."

Such incidents, as well as the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritualmeditation movement, have prompted a wide range of groups and religiousleaders to oppose granting China permanent normalized status.

"Our government and people of faith in China should expect genuine,demonstrable, and purposeful progress in the area of human rights fromChinese leaders," said Richard Land, president of the Southern BaptistConvention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in a statementearlier this month.

"Rather than reward Beijing's tragic repression of its own people,Congress should hold the Chinese government accountable when it violatesinternationally agreed upon codes of civilized behavior," he said.

The government's U.S. Commission on International Freedom, whichincludes representatives from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim,and other faiths who range across the political and ideologicalspectrum, has also urged Congress to reject normalized relations.

"While many commissioners support free trade, the commissionbelieves that the U.S. Congress should grant China PNTR status onlyafter China makes substantial improvement in respect for religiousfreedom," the panel said in a May 1 report on the state of religiousfreedom around the world.

The division within the religious community over China wasunderscored by Richard C. Cizik, vice president for governmental affairsof the National Association of Evangelicals, in a May 16 personal letterto members of Congress written on NAE letterhead.

"The National Association of Evangelicals is officially neutral onthe topic of permanent normal trade relations with China," Cizik noted."Evangelicals are not of one mind how to best encourage China to movetoward greater religious freedom.


Cizik voiced his personal support for granting permanent status,coupled with a variety of other policies aimed at creating what he saidwould be a "consistent" policy that could command a "bipartisanconsensus based on public support."

But, he said, "millions of evangelicals...are convinced we need toend the fractious debate on China trade policy, which is damaging confidencein the United States among the Chinese people and elsewhere."