The United States is renewing its call on China to end its crackdown on the Falun Gong religious sect. Nearly 50 members of the spiritual movement have been sentenced to prison by Chinese courts since last Friday.

The State Department says it is disturbed by the reports of the latest sentencing of Falun Gong followers, and it has again appealed to Beijing to end what it describes as serious violations of religious freedom.

The comments follow reports in the official Chinese media of the sentencing Sunday of 45 members of the banned spiritual movement to prison terms of up to 13 years for a variety of protest activities, including making leaflets and banners.

The sentences came after four Falun Gong practitioners were given terms ranging from seven years to life last Friday, for allegedly helping organize the self-immolation of several sect members in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in January.

Briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Bush administration is monitoring the plight of Chinese Falun Gong adherents with concern. "We find those reports disturbing," Mr. Reeker said. " As we've said and noted many times before, China is a signatory to the international covenant on civil and political rights, which includes provisions on the freedom of expression. We've raised with China on many occasions our concerns about the crackdown on the Falun Gong and reports of torture and mistreatment of detained and imprisoned practitioners, and we're going to continue to raise those issues."

Mr. Reeker said China's failure to respect freedom of though and religion has already caused that country to be listed as a country of "particular concern" under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act from the U.S. Congress.

Elsewhere in Washington, ten U.S.-based members of Falun Gong continued a hunger strike they began late last week in a square opposite the Chinese Embassy.

At a news conference, Falun Gong activists accused Chinese President Jiang Zemin of ordering a secret campaign to defame Chinese members of the group, break them financially and destroy them physically.

They said they were rebuffed by embassy staff members, when they tried to deliver letters asking for a meeting with China's U.S. ambassador, Yang Jeichi.