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Behind the Headlines: Rabbi Goes to China, Seeking Freedom for Imprisoned Pastor

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein could not get Pastor Peter Xu Yongze out of his head.

The leader of the underground house church movement in China, Pastor Xu was imprisoned by the Chinese government earlier this year for heading what the state has labeled a “heretical cult.”

His Protestant church, located in the central province of Henan, reportedly numbers in the millions, and Xu has emerged in recent years as a symbol of the movement for religious freedom in China.

His case has also been used to dramatize — and put a human face on — a campaign led by religious leaders in the United States to put an end to religious persecution around the world.

The issue has galvanized congressional leaders in Washington, who have vowed to pass legislation that would impose sanctions on any country engaged in religious persecution.

Eckstein, president of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has been working with a wide spectrum of religious leaders to raise awareness about religious persecution abroad, said Xu’s situation was weighing heavily on his mind while walking to synagogue recently.

“I kept conjuring up these images of [Natan] Sharanksy and Rabbi Akiva, people in my own tradition who have been persecuted,” Eckstein said, referring to the former Russian dissident who is now an Israeli Cabinet minister and to a leading rabbinic sage of the Roman period.

“Thinking of Sharansky sitting in some jail somewhere, simply for living as a Jew, I asked myself, `Isn’t there more that I can do for Pastor Xu?'”

So he went to China.

His mission this month included several objectives: to appeal for Xu’s release, to explain to Chinese officials that “it’s not just the Christian right that is concerned about Christian persecution in China” and to encourage the government to make a gesture in favor of greater religious freedom in advance of Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s upcoming trip to Washington.

Zemin is slated to meet with President Clinton in October.

The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion for those who worship at registered state churches, but Beijing does not recognize religious groups that are not government-affiliated.

As many as 10 million people are believed to be involved in underground churches, and the government employs a policy of intimidation against them, regularly imprisoning people for practicing their faith, according to human rights experts.

Meeting with the head of China’s religious affairs bureau, Eckstein proposed that China and the United States form a joint commission to address issued related to religious freedom.

Such a commission, he said, would ensure due process when incidents of abuse occur and create greater accountability on the part of the Chinese government.

“We don’t know where Peter Xu is today,” Eckstein said. “I think we need to create a kind of structure to engage the Chinese in dialogue on these issues and make them feel that they ought to at least inform us of what’s going on.”

Although he received no official response to his idea, Eckstein said he sees his efforts as a successful first overture in dealing with the problem of religious persecution in China.

He is considering returning with a delegation of religious leaders to further press the issue.

“Everything we do should raise the ante and bring our prodding up a notch,” Eckstein said. “They’re not going to reach a Jeffersonian democracy by tomorrow, but if we continue to engage in this kind of dialogue and prod them on specific instances of abuse, I believe progress can be made.”

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