Students for Falun Gong Attends the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit

Young Falun Gong practitioners from Students for Falun Gong (SFFG) and Falun Dafa Information Center (FDI) attended the 2023 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, D.C. from January 31st to February 1st. 

The group of young practitioners traveled from California, New York, and Maryland and consisted of students and young professionals in the music, healthcare, technology, software development, and biotechnology fields. Over the 2-day conference, SFFG and FDI members clarified the truth about the persecution of Falun Gong in mainland China to conference attendees and government officials.

Multiple summit speakers and human rights experts applauded Falun Gong practitioners’ resilience and courage, and condemned the CCP for its ongoing persecution of Falun Gong.

Grace Chen (middle), whose parents are currently imprisoned in mainland China for practicing Falun Gong, with seven members of Students for Falun Gong and Falun Dafa Information Center at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C.

Young Practitioner Speaks on Panel Prioritizing the Release of Religious Prisoners of Conscience

Grace Chen, a young practitioner born in mainland China now studying in the US, was invited to represent Falun Gong practitioners at a panel titled “Campaign to Free Religious Prisoners of Conscience in China.” Both of Grace’s parents are imprisoned in mainland China simply for practicing Falun Gong.

Grace Chen reads a speech on a panel at the IRF Summit focused on the release of religious prisoners of conscience in China.

During the panel, Grace shared her experience of living in China as a practitioner of Falun Gong, a group persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After the start of the persecution of Falun Gong in 1999, millions of Falun Gong practitioners were detained and tortured, including her mother and father multiple times throughout her childhood. Her mother was once kidnapped by police while she walked Grace to kindergarten and did not come home for several weeks. Grace also recounted how the CCP always spread lies about Falun Gong in mainland China, even putting anti-Falun Gong content in elementary school textbooks and arranging for school principals and faculty to give scripted propaganda speeches about Falun Gong in front of the whole school. 

Grace was able to leave China in 2019 to study music in New York, but her parents remained in China to work and support her education. In late 2020, both of her parents were detained in a mass arrest of Falun Gong practitioners. Grace has been unable to contact them since and has not heard her parents’ voices in over two years. 

Grace and her mother, Ms. Zhimin Cao, who is currently imprisoned in China for practicing Falun Gong.

Many audience members were moved to tears by Grace’s story. After the panel and Q&A had concluded, one audience member specifically asked for the microphone again to thank the panel members and Grace for their courage. She was moved to tears during Grace’s speech and emphasized that China’s communist regime was heartless to do this to a 17-year-old girl. The audience member also encouraged Grace to continue to stay strong in her fight against the Chinese Communist Party. Other audience members similarly spoke with Grace after the panel and thanked her for her speech and bravery.

An audience member thanks panel members and Grace Chen for their speeches and courage.

Conference Speakers and Summit Leaders Recognize and Support Falun Gong

Several conference speakers throughout the conference mentioned the persecution of Falun Gong and voiced their support for Falun Gong practitioners.

During a panel session, Simon Zhang, a practitioner whose mother was persecuted to death for practicing Falun Gong, discussed that his mother (Ms. Yunzhi Ji) had been sent to forced labor camps twice since the start of the persecution in 1999. 

“In the 65 years of her life, the last 23 years were filled with surveillance, harassment, arrest, torture, and abuses… All she did was to stay truthful to the principles of Falun Gong: Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance. She refused to give them up, even in the face of physical and mental torture by the communist regime,” Simon said. A few days before the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Ms. Yunzhi Ji was arrested again and died in custody after brutal torture. 

Simon Zhang holds a photo of his mother, Ms. Yunzhi Ji, who was persecuted to death by the Chinese Communist Party for practicing Falun Gong.

After hearing Simon’s speech, Katrina Lantos Swett, former Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and Co-Chair of IRF Summit, commended Falun Gong practitioners: 

“For many many years, I personally, and my family, the Lantos family, and the Lantos Foundation have been engaged with the Falun Gong community, and there, too, we see this remarkable response of dignity and forbearance and a greater capacity to forgive as they face unimaginable horrors.”

At a plenary session during the summit, Marco Respinti emphasized that journalists must be well-educated on all aspects of human rights and not only the most recent or most publicized persecuted groups. Respinti said that journalists tend to focus on the most “popular” victim groups of human rights abuses, but there are still many lesser-known persecuted groups with thousands or millions of victims, including Falun Gong, that must be investigated and reported on as well. Mr. Respinti is the Director-in-Charge of Bitter Winter, an online magazine about religious liberty and human rights in China and around the world.

Marco Respinti speaks during a discussion about the importance of international religious freedom education.

Mr. Respinti also stopped by the Falun Gong and Falun Dafa Information Center (FDI) booth in the exhibit hall and spoke with the young practitioners there. He said he was very familiar with the persecution of Falun Gong in mainland China and was interested in Falun Dafa Information Center’s most recent publication, The Persecution of Falun Gong: Key Trends from 2022 and What to Watch for Ahead. Mr. Respinti took a copy of the report to read and discussed collaborating with FDI in the future.

Marco Respinti, Director-in-Charge of online human rights and religious liberty magazine Bitter Winter, stops by the Falun Gong booth. 

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) hosted a session at the summit to give an update on the USCIRF Victims List, an online database that catalogs victims targeted due to their freedom of religion or belief. USCIRF Researchers mentioned that of the victims in the database, the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for 39%, and Falun Gong practitioners make up 11% of the Victims List. 

After the session, Dylan Schexnaydre, a researcher with USCIRF and Kurt Werthmuller, USCIRF Supervisory Policy Analyst spoke with Grace Chen and offered their condolences for her parents’ imprisonment. Mr. Schexnaydre took a copy of Falun Dafa Information Center’s most recent report on the persecution and said that USCIRF would continue to work closely with the Falun Gong community. Dr. Werthmuller mentioned that he had been working with members of the Falun Gong community for a long time and recounted how he had spoken at a July 20th rally in Washington, D.C. in 2021, calling for an end to the then 22-year persecution of Falun Gong by the CCP. 

Both Dr. Werthmuller and Mr. Schexnaydre expressed concern for the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses and encouraged Grace to schedule a meeting with the USCIRF to further discuss what can be done to help release her parents.

Grace Chen with USCIRF supervisory policy analyst Dr. Werthmuller and USCIRF researcher Mr. Schexnaydre, who holds a copy of Falun Dafa Information Center’s 2022 report on the persecution of Falun Gong.

Conference Attendees Show Support at the Falun Gong Booth

Students for Falun Gong and Falun Dafa Information Center collaborated on a booth in the IRF exhibit hall with materials on the spiritual practice of Falun Gong as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of the practice. Many people stopped by to learn about the truth, show support for the Falun Gong community, and ask about how they could help.

A young practitioner clarifies the truth to a conference attendee.

Enes Kanter Freedom, a professional basketball player and human rights activist who is very outspoken about China’s human rights abuses and forced organ harvesting crimes, stopped in the exhibit hall when he saw the Falun Gong booth. 

“Falun Gong, I’m praying for all of you,” Enes said. The practitioners at the booth gave him a small lotus flower pendant with the words “Falun Dafa is Good” and “Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance” on it. Mr. Freedom thanked the practitioners and wished them success in their fight for freedom from the Chinese Communist Party.

Enes Kanter Freedom poses with young practitioners at the Falun Gong booth. 

One woman stopped by the Falun Gong booth and mentioned that she knew a little bit about the persecution of Falun Gong by the Chinese Communist Party, but did not know too many details. She was shocked to learn that the CCP has been persecuting Falun Gong practitioners for 23 years and asked if the US government had done anything to help stop the persecution. When told that the US government had sanctioned CCP officials three times between 2020 and 2022 for gross human rights abuses against Falun Gong, the woman said that more needed to be done to stand up to the CCP’s persecution.

A young Burmese activist stopped by the Falun Gong booth and was particularly interested in Students for Falun Gong and their work. She mentioned that she was part of a Burmese association and was trying to engage more of the diaspora, especially the younger generation, in activism work and standing up for human rights. The young woman asked how Students for Falun Gong motivates students and young professionals to participate in their work, and commended the booth for how many young practitioners showed up to help.

A young Burmese woman speaks with a practitioner at the Falun Gong booth.

One man stopped by the Falun Gong booth and was interested in learning the Falun Gong exercises and meditation. After speaking to young practitioners at the booth, he was saddened and shocked to hear about the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong in mainland China. The man took one copy of each material on the table and said he would read them all thoroughly at home because he wanted to know as much as possible about Falun Gong.

A man stops by the Falun Gong booth to learn more and take materials to read at home.

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