A new report says China's government continues to systematically violate religious freedoms, detailing what it calls a narrowing of overall civil and individual freedoms in the country.   The report by the nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was released Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
Seven members of the commission visited China this past August, and were able to travel to a number of areas in the country, including Tibet, and Xinjiang province.

Chinese authorities exerted tight control over meetings commission members had with religious figures, including Buddhist monks and others. 

Authorities denied permission for access to several prominent religious leaders, and commission members were not able to talk privately and freely with religious leaders of its own choosing.

Commission Chairman Michael Cromartie says that did not stop some from offering what he calls honest assessments at the risk of their own personal safety.

He sums up one of the key findings of the commission report.

"The commission has concluded that the scope of political openness and public activism and civil and individual freedoms is actually now narrowing in China," Mr. Cromartie says. "Economic freedom, as some had hoped, has not led to more religious and political freedom and human rights protection."

Mr. Cromartie says recent campaigns to stamp out what the government calls evil influences and cults, and campaigns against separatists have led to brutal human rights abuses.

Mr. Cromartie describes increasing pressure on unregistered Catholic and other groups, and says authorities are also using the issue of terrorist threats as an excuse to extend its crackdown.

"Groups determined [by the government] to be cults are brutally suppressed, as is evidenced by the crackdown on Falun Gong and other spiritual movements," Mr. Cromartie says. "[And] the Chinese government we would add is using the wear on terror as a pretext to monitor and control Uighur Muslim religious activity.  The government also used its terrorist concerns to restrict [the commission's] activity in Xinjiang."

In Tibet, the commission said authorities stated that one of their primary goals was to eliminate the influence of the Dalai Lama.

Commission member Preeta Bansal says one of the more striking aspects for her was what she calls a complete disconnect between Chinese authorities concept of religious freedom and internationally-accepted norms.

"They spoke of freedom of religion as kind of a government-allowed [thing], a matter of government approval, yet whenever they said religion is growing under our watchful eye and under our very strict controls that somehow meant freedom of religion.  What they didn't seem to get and what they cynically chose not to get as we continually repeated to them is that freedom of religion is the freedom from state control, it's a private sphere that is inviolate and it's an individual sphere," Mr. Bansal says.

Among other things, the commission urges stronger U.S. efforts to urge China to end severe violations of religious freedom and human rights, the appointment of a new counselor for human rights and rule of law at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and strengthening efforts to highlight conditions facing Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.

The commission report comes just after the State Department issued its annual report on international religious freedom, which continues to name China as a country of particular concern.

It also comes as President Bush prepares to go to China, a fact noted by (Democratic) Congressman Tom Lantos.

"I earnestly hope and I call on the president to use his time on the plane to Asia to read this report and to raise both publicly and privately the continued suppression of religious freedom and so many other freedoms in China," he says.

In its report the commission also calls for continued U.S. efforts to press China, South Korea and other countries to quickly resolve technical and legal issues regarding the resettlement of North Koreans fleeing their country, and urges Washington to press Beijing to protect North Koreans in China.