Chinese leader Jiang Zemin said last week his No. 1 foreign policy priority is better relations with the United States. He wants to form a partnership for the 21st century, he explained. And he let it be known that he is even willing to make some “good-faith” concessions, such as releasing a few political dissidents currently rotting in his “laogai” — Chinese for “gulag.”

U.S. State Department officials are just giddy over this turn of events. They interpret such statements, and Jiang’s new economic policies, as evidence of genuine reform in China. They’re getting ready to roll out the red carpet for Jiang when he visits the United States later this year.

I predict U.S. officials are going to sell out way too cheaply to ensure open markets in China and to prevent the kind of saber rattling that occurred last year when one Chinese military leader reminded Americans that their intercontinental-ballistic nuclear missiles were capable of hitting Los Angeles.

Do you know what I think we should demand from China before we lift a finger for Beijing? I don’t think we should settle for the release — perhaps, even just a temporary one — of a handful of political dissidents. Certainly that should be part of any deal. But, at a minimum, we should require an absolute end to the persecution of China’s own subjects for religious reasons — be they Christian or followers of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

We should remind Mr. Jiang that, his protestations to the contrary, more Christians are imprisoned for their faith in China than in any other country in the world. That is saying something truly horrific given the rising tide of persecution of Christians on a global scale.

Pastors of the house church movement are particularly at risk. They must do their preaching and evangelizing at night, in forests and caves, for they are constantly faced with the inevitability of arrest and imprisonment. It’s not a question of “if” the police are going to come, they say, but “when.”

Protestants and Catholics alike are targeted by the government. And, recently, Beijing let Rome know things could get worse for Catholics if the pope and his followers in China don’t behave themselves.

All of this is no secret to the U.S. government. On July 22, the U.S. State Department issued its Report on Religious Freedom which sharply criticized China for violating its own constitution guaranteeing religious belief by seeking to “restrict all actual religious practice to government-authorized religious organizations and registered places of worship.”

China’s campaign against the church intensified a year ago next month with a wave of beatings, fines and jailings of leaders. While China claims there are only some 15 million believers in the country, the State Department report suggested that a more accurate number is 40 to 50 million.

And that number is exactly why the Chinese are so frightened by this growing movement. Don’t think for a minute that the boys in Beijing didn’t notice the role the church played in the fall of the Soviet empire. They are determined that history will not repeat itself at their expense.

The key to freeing those millions of Christians in China — and the Buddhists in Tibet, as well — is for millions of Christians in the United States and western world to make as much noise about it as possible. That’s how the Jews in the Soviet Union were saved. Yet, the church remains, for the most part, asleep at the switch.

Sept. 28 has been designated as the “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.” Organizers are hoping to wake up the congregrations of some 150,000 churches in more than 110 countries. In the United States, the event will kick off a season of activities that will culminate on Nov. 16 — “Persecution Sunday.” (For those who want more information about getting involved, check “” on the Internet or call 1-888-538-7772.)

So let’s make some noise for those who have been silenced far too long. And let’s tell Jiang that we’re willing to be friends — but not at the cost of complicity in the greatest systematic human rights abuse being perpetrated anywhere in the world today.

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