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Falun Gong protest draws 3,000

More than 3,000 protesters lined the streets of Flushing Saturday as the religious sect Falun Gong led a massive rally against the Chinese government following a series of skirmishes between the group and its detractors since mid-May.

Members of the anti-Communist group have appeared daily along the streets of downtown Flushing for several years, but their presence has drawn heightened criticism in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 65,000 people in central China last month.

Sherry Zhang, a Falun Gong spokeswoman, said last weekend's afternoon rally was to protest Chinese nationalists who have recently engaged the religious group's members since May.

"I have never seen anything like this in the U.S. — people shouting dirty words and making gestures," she said. "[Chinese nationalists] should respect the freedom and democracy in this country. If they do not respect it, they should go back to China, where they do not respect you."

Zhang accused the Chinese government of criticizing the Falun Gong to divert national attention from the country's response to the earthquake and of orchestrating attacks on its members.

Falun Gong is a spiritual practice introduced in China in the late 1990s by Li Hongzhi. It was banned by the Communist Party in 1999, creating a clash between the two groups.

Thousands of Falun Gong members stood behind blockades along Flushing's Sanford Avenue at last weekend's rally, holding signs which read "CCP destroys China" and "If you care about China, quit the Chinese Communist Party." Supporters of the Chinese government were cordoned off at the end of the street, where they rallied against the religious sect.

Flushing's Judy Chen, a Taiwanese native and Falun Gong member, said she had been attacked May 19 while handing out information about the group in Flushing.

"A woman punched me in the neck and temple and scratched my lips," she said. "She tried to grab my camera. My son is fighting for peace in Iraq and we have people waving Communist flags here in our own backyard. I don't feel safe."

City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) threw his support behind the Falun Gong at the rally.

"No matter where these types of attacks take place, it is un-American and, under no circumstances, will be tolerated," said Avella, who donned one of the group's shirts.

The Chinese consulate-general in Manhattan could not be reached for comment.

Police said 2,500 people rallied with the religious group, while 500 people rallied against them. One person was arrested for disorderly conduct, while several tickets were given for minor offenses, police said.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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