US Religious Freedom Ambassador Reportedly Denied Chinese Visa

Chinese officials reportedly denied a visa to the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom just days before a visit from Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to Washington. However, it emerged Wednesday that the White House addressed the issue during Xi's visit. 

"The Chinese noted that Ambassador Cook's predecessors, as well as the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, have visited China on numerous occasions for discussion on religious freedom and related issues, and they are working on dates for Ambassador Cook's future visit," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reportedly said.

Previously, in a statement released by the White House, Carney said he had no information on the topic:

"I would simply say that, as I noted yesterday and as others certainly did, including the Vice President, we are extremely candid in our conversations with members of the Chinese leadership about human rights and about the other issues of concern that we have in our broader relationship with China.

"Our commitment to being candid and direct with China about issues where we don't agree or issues where we have concerns is part of an overall constructive approach to the relationship, which has many aspects to it. And we are not combative or disrespectful. We are frank and candid."

Suzan Johnson Cook was reportedly refused appointments with Chinese officials prior to her scheduled trip to the country on Feb. 8. Subsequently, her visa application was turned down and the explanation given to Johnson Cook was that she had no appointments necessary for a diplomatic visit, reported The Washington Post.

The Post also reported that Johnson Cook was advised to not mention the issue during the Chinese official's visit. Carney said during the Wednesday press briefing he had no information on the allegations.

A message left with the White House press office for Cook's spokesperson was not returned by time of press. 

The office of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom is the principal adviser both to the secretary of state and the president of the United States on issues of religious freedom. The job entials promoting "religious freedom around the world using diplomacy [and] public outreach," Johnson Cook said in a recent interview. The office's annual report is given on 199 countries around the world and describes methods used in dealing with issues of religious freedom.

President Obama, who met with Xi on Tuesday, has already been under some criticism from human rights groups and religious leaders for allegedly not being decisive enough in challenging China on issues such as its crackdown on Tibetans and the recent imprisonment of several religious and dissident leaders. 

"We are shocked to learn [about] this 'Visa Gate,'" Mark Shan of ChinaAid, a U.S.-based human rights agency, said in a statement emailed to CP. "I think President Obama and his administration really need to give up the 'quiet diplomacy' and speak up. He will be surprised to see how much positive influence he can have on China if he changes the course from now on. It is never [too] late."

Several representatives of human rights organizations have told CP recently that the Chinese state is looking at religion with increasing animosity, within and outside of Communist party.

Human Rights In China (HRIC), a U.S.-based human rights agency, provided CP recently with a translation of an article the executive vice minister of the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee published on Dec. 19 in one of the state-run publications. The article emphasized that it is forbidden for party members to believe in any religion, a view that "has been consistent and has not changed an iota" and urged party members "to unite the patriotic religious groups to resist various infiltrations from overseas hostile forces which use religion as a tool." The article is said to have also mentioned that "allowing party members to believe in religion would reduce the party's ability to fight separatism particularly under the circumstance where overseas hostile forces are using religion as an approach to perpetrate separatism activities in some minority areas."

The reports of increasing hostility of the Chinese state toward religion, even in its official, state-approved form, have been confirmed by multiple sources recently.

In a conversation with President Obama Tuesday, Xi reportedly defended China's record on human rights, saying that his country "has made tremendous and well-recognized achievements" in the past 30 years, adding that "there is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights."