U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in China late Sunday night for a three-day visit to the communist nation that will be his first since taking office.
Obama was greeted by Chinese dignitaries upon his arrival in Shanghai, where he will stay for one day before traveling to Beijing for a two-day state visit hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The president's visit is being closely watched by religious freedom advocates who have been urging Obama to raise rights and freedom issues in a country where repression of peaceful religious activity remains intense and widespread.
"During your visit, we urge you to raise critical issues of religious freedom and the rule of law with Chinese officials, seek meetings with prominent human rights defenders and repressed religious leaders, and make a strong public statement about the importance of human rights to the future of U.S.-China relations," wrote Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a letter sent to the president prior to his trip.
"The trip is an opportunity to dispel any notion that human rights and religious freedoms are not priorities, and to set the record straight on any of the Administration's prior statements on the place of human rights in our bilateral relationship with China," Leo added on behalf of the bipartisan federal body.
Though the Chinese government has been recognized for accommodating some religious practice, persecution watchers say repression and religious freedom abuses still persist against unregistered Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners and religious groups the government considers "evil cults."
"The Obama Administration's total silence on this issue has been seen as a green light and certainly emboldens the Chinese government's resolve to carry out this sweep, without worrying about international consequence," claimed ChinaAid President Bob Fu, whose organization works to advance religious freedom in China.
According to the ChinaAid, religious persecution of house church Christians has increased over the last two months as the Chinese government has allegedly stepped up its central government-led campaign repressing all religious activities, targeting registered and unregistered churches alike.
Recent incidents include the reported violence against the 50,000 members Linfen Fushan Church in Shanxi in September, the repression of Shouwang and Wanbang Churches earlier this month, and the locking down of Wanbang Missionary Church in Shanghai just this past Thursday.
"The international community should not ignore or remain silent in the face of continued persecution in China in the hopes of finding common ground on other important global concerns," commented USCIRF Chair Leo in his Nov. 10 letter to Obama. "Instead it should recognize that human rights protections and the advancement of the rule of law are critically intertwined with many international interests in China."
In closing, Leo expressed USCIRF's hope that Obama's administration will listen carefully to China's dissidents, human rights defenders and religious believers, and demonstrate "unwavering support for those who are in prison, have disappeared, or who are under pressure in China for seeking greater government accountability, rule of law, religious freedom, and other human rights."
"We know you are personally committed to protecting the vulnerable and expanding the rule of law," he added. "During your visit, we hope you will convey those convictions and similar convictions held by all Americans in tangible ways, not only to China's leaders, but also to its people."
As a bipartisan federal body, USCIRF assesses, proposes, and presses for U.S. foreign policy action to advance freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and other freedoms needed to protect people at risk of abuses, such as killing, detention, or torture. USCIRF was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments.