China snubs U.S. religious-freedom envoy

Feb. 15, 2012 at 3:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- China denied a top U.S. envoy a visa after forbidding her to meet with officials days before Vice President Xi Jinping's Washington trip, rights advocates said.

Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was scheduled to visit China Feb. 8, but as the date drew near, Beijing refused to grant her meetings with government officials, religious-freedom advocates who briefed Cook ahead of the visit told The Washington Post.

China then cited Cook's lack of meetings as a reason for denying her visa request, the advocates and a congressional aide told the newspaper.

The State Department declined to comment on the matter Tuesday. The Chinese Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment.

The disclosure came late Tuesday after President Barack Obama and Xi -- China's presumptive next president -- met in the Oval Office.

Rights advocates working with Cook's office told the Post she and her staff were told by Obama administration superiors to avoid talking publicly about the canceled trip before Xi's Washington visit, widely considered diplomatically sensitive, during which Obama administration officials sought to improve tense U.S.-China relations.

Xi was to be in Iowa Wednesday to meet his hosts from his first U.S. visit in 1985, when he was a county official.

Obama has been criticized by rights groups, religious leaders and Republican lawmakers who allege he has not sufficiently challenged China on issues such as its recent crackdown on Tibetans and its imprisonment of religious and dissident leaders.

Xi defended Beijing's human-rights record Tuesday, telling a State Department luncheon China "has made tremendous and well-recognized achievements" in the past 30 years.

"Of course, there is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights," he said.

No news conferences with Xi are planned during his U.S. visit, U.S. and Chinese officials said.

Chinese officials have been careful to avoid groups protesting his visit, the Post said.

Cook's post was created as part of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which seeks to promote religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy and to advocate on behalf of individuals viewed as persecuted in foreign countries due to their religion.

Cook is the first woman and the first African-American to hold the post.

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