HONG KONG (AP) - Followers of China's banned Falun Gong meditation sect staged a sit-in protest today in Hong Kong, demanding freedom for leaders arrested on the mainland.
The sect's spiritual chief, meanwhile, is reportedly insisting he had no part in any acts of defiance.
"We have never opposed any government, not now, not in the future. Even if people are bad to us, we still can't be bad to those people. We can't take anyone as enemies,'' Li Hongzhi, the sect founder, was quoted as saying in a statement sent by followers to The Associated Press.
A protest with 10,000 demonstrators on April 25 at the communist leaders' compound in Beijing and three other mass protests this week spurred the Chinese leaders to ban the sect on Thursday. Dozens of leaders in China were reported arrested.
Li, a former soldier and government clerk in China, was quoted today as making similar remarks to a Hong Kong newspaper, The Sun, saying that even if China continues the crackdown, "I will not ask them to rebel against the government.''
Li said he was in Beijing on April 22 en route to Australia, but was neither in contact with sect leaders there nor informed of the large protest three days later that rattled China's leadership.
"I have never organized my followers to protest against the government. It was their own initiatives, and I was not in contact with anyone,'' Li was quoted as telling The Sun.
"We have never been involved in politics. I am a man who wants to reach a higher spiritual order through meditation. This is my only goal,'' said Li, now based in New York.
The sect, whose doctrines draw on martial arts, Buddhism and Taoism, was founded in 1992. The government said at one point the group had up to 70 million followers, but it claimed Thursday that has fallen sharply. By comparison, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has 61 million members.
Despite the crackdown in mainland China, hundreds of followers continued to practice meditation in public parks across Hong Kong, where the sect is registered officially as a legal social group.
In the shadow of gleaming office towers, a dozen followers, mostly middle-aged and elderly men, gathered in a park this morning around a small boom box sending out soothing New Age-style music and instructions read out by Li.
Their eyes closed, legs apart and knees slightly bent, they moved their arms in slow, fluid motions repetitively for an hour before workers filled up the offices. The Falun Gong practitioners later sat crossed-legged on mats and read out sections of a scripture written by Li.
Outside China's official Xinhua news agency's headquarters in Hong Kong, about two dozen followers, including several children, continued their silent sit-in protests demanding the release of sect leaders. There were no banners or slogans - only devotees meditating and quietly reading the scripture.
"I'm not angry - Li's teachings allow no hostility. I was just heartbroken when I saw the news of the crackdown yesterday,'' said Tso Chi-siu, a 53-year-old housewife, who vowed to stay until China releases the sect's followers.
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