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China frees 3 American missionaries

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BEIJING (Reuters) — China released three American missionaries today, two days after they were detained with 130 Chinese members of a banned Christian church, the U.S. Embassy said.

The three — identified by a human rights group as Taiwan-born Henry Chu, 36, Dande Lin, 28, and Patrica Lan, 25 — were arrested with members of the China Fang-cheng Church, a 500,000-member evangelical group Beijing banned last year.

The Fang-cheng Church was one of at least 14 Chinese Christian sects communist authorities had labelled an "evil cult" — the same label as the Falun Gong spiritual group — said the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights & Democracy.

The U.S. Embassy said a consular official secured the release of three Americans from the central province of Henan.

"At 4 p.m. on Aug. 25, the FAO (Chinese foreign affairs office) officials contacted the consular officer to inform him that the Americans had been released from detention," the statement said.

The banned church ran afoul of China's communist rulers last year for its affiliation with overseas Christians and its refusal to join the government-controlled church, the human rights group said.

The arrests — initially denied by China but condemned by the U.S. State Department — took place as a delegation of leaders of China's state-sponsored religious organization toured the United States to defend Beijing's treatment of believers.

In timing that may nullify China's efforts to dispel its image as a repressive state, the arrests surfaced just as the leader of the delegation was declaring a "golden age" for faith in China to an American audience.

Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan, head of the China Patriotic Catholic Association, made the comment in Los Angeles, the first stop on the Chinese delegation's U.S. tour before a world summit of religious leaders at the United Nations next month.

Fu was also quoted by state media as slamming the Dalai Lama and agreeing with a U.N. decision to exclude him from the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.

"The Dalai Lama has been engaged in splittist activities and has created trouble for Tibet, and his presence at the meeting is inconsistent with the theme of the summit," said Fu.

Summit organisers belatedly invited the Dalai Lama to the closing ceremony, but not to the deliberations because of concern about problems with China, which took over Tibet in 1950. The exiled spiritual leader has declined to attend the ceremony.

The United States and others have criticised summit organisers for not including the Dalai Lama. Critics say his exclusion—and China's representation by a delegation beholden to the atheist Communist Party—is a travesty.

The touring religious officials also revealed that China has convicted 151 members of Falun Gong for various crimes since last year's ban of the spiritual movement.

The China Daily quoted Ye Xiaowen, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, as saying 22 of the adherents convicted since China banned Falun Gong in July 1999 were jailed for up to five years.

"The convicted are those who either leaked state secrets, made use of Falun Gong to create social chaos, or committed other crimes," Ye was quoted as saying in Los Angeles.

Overseas Falun Gong activists say at least 5,000 adherents have been sent to labour camps without trial. Human rights groups say they have documented at least 27 deaths of Falun Gong adherents in Chinese police custody.

Foreign human rights groups have deplored the clampdown on Falun Gong and Zhong Gong, another quasi-religious movement, both of which China says are trying to overthrow the communist state.