(CNSNews.com) - By Payton Hoegh - As the 2008 Olympics approach, human rights and religious freedom advocates are urging the U.S. government to "exploit the need" China has to host a successful event and step up the pressure on Beijing to improve its record.
"A smooth and successful Olympics is paramount to China," Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China told a statutory panel on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Yet despite the fact that the games are only 18 months away, she said the communist regime's repression has been getting worse.
Hom joined representatives of four major religions and others in testifying before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises the executive and legislative branches on efforts to counter religious persecution around the world.
Since Beijing in 2001 won the hosting rights to the 2008 summer games, human rights groups have called on the international community to exert pressure on the government to improve its record.
Some groups, such as Reporters without Borders, advocate boycotting the Olympics, while others hope to use the event to pressure Beijing into reforming.
Critics point to the Olympic Charter, which states, "Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (OIC), China promised during its host city bid that if the event came to Beijing, the nation would reform its human rights policies.
"[In] allowing Beijing to host the Games, [the OIC] will help the development of human rights," Vice President of the Beijing Bid Committee, Liu Jingmin, said at the time.
Beijing's then Mayor Liu Qi also promised social progress and improved human rights policies in the event the city won its bid.
Analysts who spoke Wednesday supported the idea that China's position as host nation could be used as a lever.
Hom advised the panel to use the event, along with China's desire to be a recognized and respected power in world politics, to press for improvement on religious freedom and human rights.
"Exploit this need" for a successful Olympics, she urged the panel, adding that in the lead-up to the Olympics, the struggle will get harder although there would be "windows of opportunity."
Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies stressed that the issue of human rights in China is sometimes pushed to the background and that it was important that "we bring these issues to light."
"The last thing we want to do is let China think we are willing to compromise on issues involving human rights," he said.
Commission Chair Felice Gaer invited officials from five organizations to give evidence and to help the U.S. as it decides how to "most effectively advance freedom of religion and related rights" in China.
Representatives of the Protestant, Catholic, (Tibetan) Buddhist and (Uighur) Islamic faiths echoed the analysts' call for Washington to intervene.
The constitution of the atheistic nation grants its people freedom of religion, but the government monitors each of the nation's five major religions and allows only government-sanctioned religious practices.
Members of churches that do not register with the state authorities or are refused registration because they are considered "evil cults" are under constant threat of arrest and attack.
The representatives submitted reports on behalf of their respective religious group telling the commission of specific instances of government repression, including reports of religious leaders being arrested, tortured, and detained for months or years under frivolous charges.
The China Aid Association (CAA) released a report documenting the level of persecution against Protestant house churches and giving the known number of arrests, attacks, and churches destroyed.
It said China detained at least 600 Christians and destroyed numerous churches in 2006.
"Zhejiang and Henan province should be put on notice [as] having the worst religious persecution record," said Rev. Bob Fu of CAA. "It is morally imperative for any conscientious foreign investors in Henan to address this serious issue."
Joseph Kung of the Catholic Cardinal Kung Foundation told the panel of the latest instance of Catholic bishops being arrested, and he called on the commission to help locate them.
"Religious persecution in China is not ancient history" Kung said, adding that it "should be one of the top priorities of the U.S." in the coming year.
Bhuchung Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet voiced concerned that Beijing may use the games to legitimize its control over Tibet. China has occupied the Himalayan region since 1950 and is accused of repressing the Buddhist religion there.
The commission is a panel reporting directly to the president and Congress which examines the religious rights policies of nations and advises the government on how to deal with those that are of "particular concern."