BEIJING, May 12--A leading U.S.-based Christian broadcaster on Friday defended China's crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement and said the communist government allowed Christians to worship freely.

Paul Crouch delivered his assessment after meetings this week with Chinese religious and media officials. Part of the time, he sought permission for his Trinity Broadcasting Network--which bills itself as the world's largest Christian television operation--to broadcast in Chinese hotels and residences for foreigners.

``It has become very clear to me that we Americans need to have the record set straight regarding China on a number of issues,'' Crouch told reporters.

China's ambassador to the United States, Li Zhaoxing, invited Crouch to visit before a contentious vote in the U.S. Congress later this month on whether to grant Beijing permanent trade relations, part of an agreement to get China into the World Trade Organization.

Opponents point to China's human rights, religious and labor abuses in arguing against the trade legislation. A federal advisory panel created to promote religious freedom has said China should be denied normalized trade relations because of its "egregious" religious persecution of Falun Gong members, Catholics loyal to the Vatican, evangelical Christians who worship outside of state-sanctioned churches, Tibetan Buddhists and others.

China allows only state-sanctioned religious expression, considering all other forms to be illegal.

But Crouch said China's WTO entry would benefit the United States.

``This is clearly a case where helping our Chinese brothers and sisters to gain acceptance in the WTO will ultimately give to America a good return,'' he said.

Crouch was unequivocal in his support for China's crackdown on Falun Gong, calling the group ``subversive'' and saying he told Ambassador Li that his network ``would do our utmost to reveal to the United States and to the world the dangers of this false cult.'' Falun Gong combines traditional meditative physical exercises with ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and founder Li Hongzhi. Practitioners claim it promotes health and good citizenship.

China, however, accuses the group of causing 1,559 deaths-mostly among devotees who refused medical treatment--leading to psychiatric problems in 600 others and cheating people by making them spend lavishly on books and teachings.

Human rights groups say more than 5,000 practitioners have been sent to labor camps and at least 16 have died in police custody since the government banned the group 9 1/2 months ago.

The human rights groups also say the crackdown has spread to Christian and other religious groups who worship outside of government-registered churches. China has jailed underground evangelists and forbids proselytizing.

Dozens of followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement were dragged away by police in Tiananmen Square Thursday as they demonstrated to mark their founder's birthday.

The protesters emerged in small groups at separate intervals, attempting to unfurl banners or strike the traditional Falun Gong pose of outstretched arms and one leg raised and bent at the knee. Plainclothes police swarmed the square, encircling each demonstration.

Tourists became involved in the melee when two apparently caught the Falun Gong activity on film. As has happened many times before, the Westerners were detained briefly and their film was confiscated.

Last month, scores of Falun Gong members were rounded up in the Square as they marked the first anniversary of their largest protest. On April 25, 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong enthusiasts surrounded the government compound in the capital to demonstrate against what they said were negative reports about the group in the state-run press.

The authorities were shaken by such a large numbers quietly protesting at their gates. Before long, the Falun Gong was banned and then outlawed as an "evil cult."

Gail Rachlink, a Falun Gong spokeswoman in New York, said she expected more protests Saturday--the anniversary of Falun Gong's founding in 1992 and the date of Li's birthday on the Western calendar.

But Chinese authorities--citing records which they say pinpoint June 7, 1952, as the real date of Li's birth--claim he has changed his day of birth in order to create mystery.

Crouch said he had "personally seen that Christians can openly practice and profess their faith in China.''

Trinity Broadcasting, based in Tustin, California, is a producer of Christian programming that services 1,400 affiliate TV stations and 5,000 cable TV systems in 130 nations.

By Friday, Crouch said TBN was already being received in Beijing's plush China World Hotel where he gave his news conference, even though he only approached Chinese officials for the first time this week for permission to broadcast.

He said he hoped TBN would begin airing in more than 3,000 other hotels and residential compounds in about two months and perhaps later on Chinese cable stations.

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