U.S. rabbi asks China to officially recognize Jews

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WASHINGTON — When he met in Beijing with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Rabbi Arthur Schneier delivered both a gift and a pointed appeal.

The gift was a Jewish encyclopedia written in Chinese and published in Shanghai. The appeal was that China recognize Judaism as an official religion.

Schneier carried that message to Jiang and other top Chinese officials last month as he and two other clerics toured China on a fact-finding mission about religious freedom.

China recognizes Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism as official religions, but says it has no reason to recognize Judaism because it has no Jews.

But Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York, an organization that promotes religious freedom and dialogue, said he told the Chinese leader that with Hong Kong and its population of some 2,500 Jews now part of China, the issue has become more important, particularly as more Jews decide to move to the Chinese mainland.

In a recent telephone interview about his trip, Schneier said Jiang's response to his appeal was, "We will give it careful consideration."

The three-week trip, aimed at opening a dialogue on religion with China, grew out of the summit meeting last October between Jiang and President Clinton in Washington.

Clinton is scheduled to visit China in June.

Schneier and the two other religious leaders appointed by Clinton — the Rev. Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Newark, N.J. — said religious freedom in China has improved over the last 20 years, but still lags behind international standards.

"We were encouraged to find that many of the government leaders and citizens we met, people who are daily struggling to help China modernize, realize that tolerance of religious freedom is an important characteristic of all advanced industrial nations," the religious leaders said in a report.

But they cited lingering problems, including the persecution of religious leaders whose congregations are not registered with the government.

While some human rights groups criticized the mission for not producing any concrete results, the religious leaders said they had succeeded in raising the profile of religion in China while laying the groundwork for future dialogue.

As a sign of their success, they said China had promised to sign a U.N. human rights declaration guaranteeing freedom of religion.

In another move, which came in response to the delegation's requests, the mayor of Shanghai announced that a synagogue used by Jewish refugees during World War II and now occupied by the state education commission would be vacated, restored and declared a historic landmark.

Chinese officials said another synagogue would be vacated and restored for use as a museum in remembrance of the more than 20,000 Jews who took refuge in Shanghai during the Holocaust.

While in Shanghai and Beijing, Schneier, who is Orthodox, officiated at two Shabbat services for the Jewish expatriate communities in those cities.

The religious leaders' travels took them to seven cities, where they visited 28 religious communities and sites, including Hong Kong's Jewish community.

"This mission was a minefield and we did our best," Schneier said. "We hope that it will evolve into a continuous interaction between the religious communities of our two countries."