Merkel set to raise human in China trip

German Chancellor Angela Merkel heads for China next week on another of the high-profile foreign trips that have boosted her standing at home and shown her willingness to add human rights to predecessor Gerhard Schroeder's focus on business deals. Merkel's visit features a meeting in Shanghai Tuesday with Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of China's official Catholic church an effort, German officials say, to focus on religious freedom under the country's communist leadership.

She will also bring a delegation of German business executives to her country's most important trading partner in Asia, and will try to keep China lined up in the uneasy coalition pushing Iran to give up enriching uranium. As a relatively new figure on the European political stage, Merkel has attracted plenty of media attention with her trips abroad journeys that have boosted her poll ratings at home.

Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats were forced into a left-right "grand coalition" with predecessor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats after neigher party won a decisive victory in last September's election. In China , Merkel will combine cordial meetings and ceremony with a willingness to underscore differences just as she did on her first visit to Moscow , where she raised concerns about efforts to restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations, and in Washington , where she underlined her view that the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay should be closed.

Eberhard Sandschneider, a China expert who heads Germany's Council on Foreign Relations, said Merkel was showing a broader emphasis and trying to engage China on a wider range of issues than did predecessor Schroeder, who was less inclined to push countries such as Russia and China on human rights.

"It's a personal concern of Angela Merkel's, and she is certainly careful but still pointing to a certain fact," said Sandschneider. "The fact is that she is looking at civil society, that she is looking at how the Chinese government is treating religious organizations." "Basically her foreign policy line is similar to the one she used in the United States quite succesfully, she is not going there to criticize overly the Chinese government, but to send a clear signal that this is a concern for us," he added. "President Bush obviously understood her when she came with the Guantanamo issue, and hopefully the Chinese will understand her too."

Sandschneider noted that "whatever aspect there will be on the international agenda in the future, China will be a decisive part of it, so it's high time Germany started developing a differentiated and active Asia policy." Merkel leaves Berlin Sunday and is scheduled to have breakfast with Prime Minster Wen Jiabao on Monday morning before a greeting ceremony with military honors.

She and Wen will take part in a German-Chinese high technology forum, and she meets President Hu Jintao in the afternoon before flying to Shangai. Merkel will tour a church in Shangai's Xujiahui district with the city's communist-recognized Bishop Jin, a member of the government-sanctioned church that has severed ties with Vatican .

China and the Vatican have clashed recently over the official church's decision to name new bishops not recognized by Rome. Although Merkel is a Protestant, she and Jin share a common experience as Christians who have lived under under governments that restrict religious liberty. Merkel grew up as a pastor's daughter in officially atheist East Germany, whose government disappeared with German reunification at the end of the Cold War in 1990.

Bishop Jin himself was imprisoned for 27 years after the communist takeover but was rehabilitated after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. He has since built the Shanghai diocese into one of the liveliest and wealthiest in the country, with more than 100 churches, three printing houses, two seminaries and 160,000 parishioners. Although some in the underground church deride him as a tool of the Communist Party, that financial independence has allowed Jin to limit the influence of the official church association in Shanghai , the bishop said in an interview last year. He has pushed for better ties with Vatican. In China , Roman Catholics loyal to the Vatican must worship in an underground church whose clergy face harassment and possible arrest, reports the AP.