Falun Gong followers rally in D.C.

Washington, USA - Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters gathered on the Mall on Sunday to observe the 10th anniversary of a Chinese crackdown on the spiritual movement.

Organizers said thousands of people were participating in quiet meditation early in the afternoon.

A rally and concert were planned for later Sunday and were also expected to draw thousands. Several people who said they and their relatives were persecuted by the Chinese government for their beliefs were expected to speak.

Falun Gong has attracted millions of followers since its founding in 1992 with its program of traditional Chinese calisthenics and philosophy drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and the often-unorthodox teachings of founder Li Hongzhi. Its followers claim no political agenda.

Falun Gong has no roster of members, but by 1998, its practitioners were estimated by Chinese officials to number about 70 million within China.

The drive by China's Communist Party leaders to obliterate the spiritual sect has left a human toll ranging from the deaths of followers in custody to the self-exile of others and the beatings of their lawyers.

The group says at least 3,200 of its members have been tortured to death by the Chinese government. It cites Wang Lixuan, who had to watch her 7-month-old son die in front of her after he was hung upside down. Then police broke her neck and crushed her skull.

The April 25, 1999, protest, which involved an estimated 10,000 practitioners at the Communist Party of China headquarters in Beijing, alerted the communist government to the group's strength and wide appeal.

The demonstration was intended to show how Falun Gong believers had learned compassion, forbearance and tolerance, said one of its practitioners. But the size and discipline of those who gathered unsettled the communist leadership, ever wary of independent groups that could threaten its authority. Two months later, the group was labeled an "evil cult" and banned.