Thursday, January 29, 2009

The faithful come out: China is experiencing a religious resurgence and, remarkably, the government is letting it happen

"If you walk down Battery Path in central Hong Kong you are likely to see a silent protest on one side of the pavement. Two or three demonstrators sit, cross-legged on the ground, in meditation. Next to them, on boards, are displayed the hideous images of individuals who have been beaten and presumably tortured. Passing parents shield the eyes of their children.

These are supporters of Falun Gong, the religious movement founded in the 1990s. It is distinguished by being probably the highest profile victim of the Chinese government's fear of organised religion. A clampdown began after a peaceful protest in July 1999 in Tiananmen Square when Falun Gong was outlawed. According to Amnesty International, the government then launched "a long-term campaign of intimidation and persecution, directed by a special organisation called the 610 Office." Protests are allowed in Hong Kong, just yards away from government offices, because of the status of the Special Administrative Region.

It is a clear reminder of the dark side of the Chinese authority's approach to religion. However, it is not the whole story.

Martin Palmer is the secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). He runs one of the few organisations that have a license from the Chinese government to work with religious groups in the country. He can hardly stress enough how profound the changes now taking place are. So are they a sign of a more relaxed attitude towards freedom of religious expression?"

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