Cardinal calls Olympics a chance for China to show human rights improvement

.ROME (AP) – The Beijing Olympics in August offer China the chance to improve its human rights record, Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen said Wednesday.

The United States, other nations and advocacy groups have tried to use the attention and prestige associated with the Olympics to leverage internal change and diplomatic cooperation from China.

“It’s a good opportunity for China to show that it has improved its regard for human rights,” Zen said in an interview with Italy’s RAI state TV.

Zen, one of the most influential Roman Catholic leaders in Asia, added that he would like to see the Asian country become “one of the top nations that truly defend human rights and work for peace.”

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday in its annual report on human rights practices around the world that China still has chronic human rights problems despite rapid economic growth.

Zen, an outspoken champion of religious freedom, who at times has drawn the ire of Beijing authorities, was in Rome for a meeting of Chinese bishops at the Vatican to discuss the problems of the Catholic Church in China.

In the interview, Zen did not discuss the meeting but said he hoped the Holy See and China would soon enter a “new era” in their relations, reaching a deal to improve conditions for Catholics in the Asian country.

Pope Benedict XVI has made the improvement of often-tense relations with China a priority of his papacy, and he is keen on restoring diplomatic relations with Beijing.

He sent a special letter to Catholics in China last year, praising the underground church there but also urging the faithful to reconcile with followers of the nation’s official church.

Beijing’s ties with the Vatican were broken in 1951 after the communists took power in China.

Millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations that are loyal to the pope and sometimes risk harassment.

Catholic clergy in China have at times been jailed and worship is allowed only in state-backed churches, which appoint their own bishops in defiance of the Vatican.