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Evangelist Franklin Graham visits China ahead of Olympics

Beijing_The son of American evangelist Billy Graham said Friday he is opposed to missionary work at this summer's Beijing Olympic Games.

Franklin Graham, also an evangelist, was speaking to reporters Friday during a visit to Beijing for meetings with the Communist Party-controlled Protestant church movement.

He said he wanted to encourage authorities to resolve conflicts with the church, but would not criticize policies that critics say limit the church's independence and religious rights.

While some Christian groups have said they plan to proselytize during the August games, Graham said he was against that because Chinese law does not permit such actions.

"I would not support any illegal activity at all," Graham said.

While the Protestant church has grown rapidly in China in recent years, the party maintains strict control over the official church, seminaries and individual congregations. Christians who meet in independent, unauthorized congregations - often private homes - are frequently subject to harassment and arrest.

In the most recent such report, police raided a gathering of about 40 members of the Chengdu Qiuyu Blessings Church at a resort near the southwestern city of Chengdu on May 2, New York-based Human Rights Watch reported.

Officers joined by officials of the local religious affairs bureau told the participants they were "suspected of being involved in illegal religious practices," the group said. Members were detained for hours and photographed, and Bibles, hymnals and Bible study materials were confiscated.

Separately, three leaders of unauthorized churches in the eastern province of Shandong were detained during a Bible study group on Thursday morning, the Texas-based monitoring group, China Aid Association reported.

Among them, one pastor from Taiwan was expelled and banned from returning to China for five years as part of China's ban on missionary work of all types.

Graham, whose mother was born in China where her father worked as a physician, said he had seen improvements in religious freedoms in the 20 years since he had been coming to the country, but said Christians in China must obey the law as they work with authorities to "resolve these areas of misunderstanding or where there is tension."

"I think the government of China is recognizing that more and more and are seeing the value of a personal faith that people can have and so I'm here to encourage that," Graham said.

"I'm not here to condemn, I'm here to work with them and help to build better bridges of understanding between Christians and government," he said.

On Sunday, Graham was due to address congregants at the 6,000-seat Chong-Yi Church - China's largest.

Graham said he sympathized with the victims of deadly rioting in Tibet last month and said he was encouraged by new talks between Beijing and Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama.

"Dialogue is always the best approach," Graham said.

Christopher Bodeen, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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