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Falun Gong wins 'religious freedom' award

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Falun Gong involves slow movement and deep breathing exercise  

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Games decision ahead

Nationwide crackdown

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WASHINGTON -- A United States human rights organization has given China's Falun Gong group a religious freedom award.

Falun Gong won the Freedom House International Religious Award, as "defenders of religious rights", along with several other Chinese religious groups and independence movements.

Freedom House, co-founded by Eleanor Roosevelt 60 years ago, says it is a non-partisan and non-profit organization, and it believes that "American leadership in international affairs is essential to the cause of human rights and freedom".

Other winners of the Freedom House award also include Friends of the Christian Unregistered Churches, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Uighur-American Association, and the Cardinal Kung Foundation, which supports China's underground Roman Catholic church.

Games decision ahead

Freedom House says the award is aimed at recognizing groups that have drawn world attention to "the severe persecution that Chinese, Tibetan and Uighur people are now forced to endure to follow their consciences."

Jesse Helms, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the ceremony, attended by other congressmen, that the awards were timely given that the International Olympic committee is due to decide in July whether to let Beijing hold the 2008 games.

"There can scarcely be a more timely subject than religious freedom in China. There is no religious freedom there, only religious persecution," he said.

Falun Gong member, Zhang Erping, accepting the award on behalf of founder Li Hongzhi, read out a statement from Li criticizing China's crackdown on the group.

"Numerous people have been able to attain good health (from the practice of Falun Gong) and along the way, it has helped people improve their moral standard. All of this has seriously threatened the wicked nature of the party," Li said.

"This is the real reason why Falun Gong is persecuted in China. The goodness has challenged the evil's nature," he said in the written statement.

Nationwide crackdown

China has embarked on a nationwide crackdown on the spiritual movement since 1999, branding it as an "evil cult".

Thousands have been arrested for protesting in the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Human rights groups claim that many Falun Gong members have been sent to labor camps where they suffer abuse.

China says it has arrested more than 150 Falun Gong protest organizers but denies allegations of abuse, saying they treat ordinary followers with lenience.

President George W. Bush has pledged that Washington will again sponsor a motion at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva this year condemning Beijing's record.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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