"This is a historic first meeting of an American delegation of religious leaders with President Jiang Zemin," Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal to Conscience Foundation said in a statement. The other two members of the delegation are the Rev. Don Argue of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark. Zemin invited President Bill Clinton to send the delegation to Communist China during a visit to the US last year in an attempt to disprove allegations of persecution in the country.
Some observers have said the trip is of questionable value since the three men will be chaperoned to staged events and meetings with approved representatives of the country's major religions. "It's part of an attempt by the two governments to shift the question of human rights from the political agenda to the diplomatic agenda," said Robbie Barnett, director of the London-based Tibet Information Network.
The Communist government requires all Christians to belong to state-controlled patriotic associations which eschew all connections to foreign groups, including the Vatican. The Catholic association allows the government to appoint its bishops and determine doctrine, ignoring the authority of the Pope and the Universal Church.
Meanwhile in Rome, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, has told reporters that the Holy See is hoping for progress toward an agreement with the government of China.
At a celebration hosted by the Italian ambassador to the Holy See, marking the anniversary of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, the cardinal spoke with journalists, and said the Church is "hopeful" that relations with China will improve.
Cardinal Sodano said it would be a positive sign if China reacted favorably to a Vatican offer to send a delegation from the Holy See to Beijing. To date there has been no response to that Vatican suggestion.
The cardinal also expressed hope that changes in China would lead to greater religious freedom for Catholics. "A modern state should not interfere in its citizens' choices of religion," he said.