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China Restores Synagogue in Advance of Clinton Visit

As President Clinton seeks a high profile for religious freedom issues during his trip to China, the anticipation of his arrival has already yielded one small, but meaningful achievement.

Just weeks ago the Chinese government completed long-sought restoration work on a synagogue located in the heart of Shanghai.

The synagogue, occupied for nearly 50 years by the state Education Commission, was built by Sephardi Jews in 1929 and used during World War II by about 25,000 Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai.

For the past 17 years, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation, has been pressing Chinese officials to vacate the synagogue, restore it and declare it a historic landmark.

In February, the mayor of Shanghai finally agreed after meeting with Schneier and two other clerics whom Clinton dispatched to China to help open a dialogue on religion.

At the behest of the White House advance staff, work was completed in time for the arrival of the presidential delegation this week.

Schneier said the only thing now missing is a Torah, which he and his wife were planning to bring to the Shanghai synagogue next week as a gift from Schneier’s congregation, Park East Synagogue in New York.

Clinton is not scheduled to visit the synagogue, but First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are planning a brief visit next week, possibly while Schneier conducts a ceremony to place the Torah in the ark.

Schneier hopes the restoration of the synagogue will mark a “first step in the revival of Jewish life in Shanghai” — a city where there has been a Jewish presence going back to the eighth century. The Jewish population, long since dispersed, now only consists of some 200 expatriates.

President Clinton, meanwhile, last week vowed to use the China trip to “speak as clearly as I can about human rights and religious freedom.”

Addressing a gathering of religious leaders at the White House, Clinton said, “Our message is clear: We in the United States believe that all governments everywhere should ensure fundamental rights, including the right of people to worship when and where they choose.”

His comments came as he concluded a meeting with Schneier, the Rev. Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Newark, N.J. The clerics, who traveled to China earlier this year, shared with Clinton their findings that the climate for religious freedom in China had improved during the last 20 years, but still lagged behind international standards.

In the meeting, Schneier underscored the need for China to recognize Judaism as an official religion.

China has said it has no reason to recognize Judaism because it has no Jews, but Schneier said that the issue has become more important now that Hong Kong’s population of some 2,500 Jews is part of China.

Prior to Clinton’s departure, more than 250 religious leaders sent an appeal urging the president to press Chinese officials to release those imprisoned for practicing their faith and to rescind decrees limiting the free functioning of religion.

The appeal, organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said, “It is our hope that your willingness to dialogue with the Chinese leaders will include the strongest possible prodding on religious liberty in China.”

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