WASHINGTON, May 23 (RNS)--As the House prepares to vote on establishing 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 bringing about changes in China's human rights practices, especially toward religious and political democratic movements.

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

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

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

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

Another signer, the Rev. Daniel Su, was born in China, converted to Christianity, and now works for the Fairfax, Va.-based China Outreach Ministries. Su recently testified before the House Ways and Means Committee that "as a clergyman concerned about religious freedom and other human rights issues in China," he was "particularly excited" that normal trade relations "will bring about dynamic changes in China."

A closely divided House is expected to vote as soon as Wednesday on granting China permanent normal trade relations, which would open up and expand markets in China and increase trade between the United States and China. Opponents of the bill say it rides roughshod over concerns about China'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 has proposed legislation that would establish a human rights watchdog commission that would monitor Chinese human rights practices. The monitoring legislation is expected to be brought to the floor at the same time as the trade relations bill.

But even as the debate unfolds, China continues to take actions that spur opposition to the U.S. trade deal and similar negotiations between China and the European Union on Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Last week, news reports from China said authorities had closed down churches and arrested at least 10 leaders of underground Christian groups. The reports cited a lengthy commentary in the Guangming Daily that said, "We must emphasize strengthening management of religious affairs within the law."

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

Such incidents, as well as the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual meditation movement, have prompted a wide range of groups and religious leaders 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 from Chinese leaders," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in a statement earlier this month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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