World leaders, and protesters, meet at UN

While some 150 leaders met inside yesterday, protesters jammed the streets.

The Millennium Assembly of the United Nations, which began yesterday, didn't only bring the largest-ever number of world leaders together to tackle the globe's most intractable problems. It also brought some 90 groups of protesters from around the world, objecting to all sorts of things - from religious oppression in China to land grabs in Zimbabwe.

"The UN world leaders summit is in the center stage," says New York City police Lt. Stephen Biegel. "Everyone that has some issue with a world leader comes."

Thousands of people have already staked out positions in Daj Hammarskjold Plaza here, beating their drums and chanting songs of national and spiritual independence. The protest groups - from outraged Iranians to quietly concentrating Chinese - have obtained permits to demonstrate on the streets of New York as high-level meetings take place behind closed doors and some 175 limousines loaded with dignitaries roll by the barricaded East side streets.

So far, the Iranian protesters have made the biggest splash, literally throwing yellow paint in the lobby of the hotel where Iranian President Mohamad Khatami is staying to register their disapproval of Iranian hard-liners' recent crackdown on dissidents.

But most of the protesters voice their frustrations legally, marching in the streets. Some are speaking out against what they claim is the wrongful imprisonment of 10 Jewish men in Iran, while others are protesting the oppression of women and the persecution of student demonstrators in the streets. Many object to Mr. Khatami's inclusion in the summit, contending he doesn't represent the Iranian people.

"It's a shame that this guy is here," says Mohammed Kondri, from New Jersey. "He's not representing the Iranian people.... This is a chance for me to come in front of the United Nations and express my personal feelings and tell the rest of the world what's happening in my country."

Other protesters lament exile from Iran and other countries because of religious and political persecution.

"I had to escape [Iran] in 1984," says Vahideh Khorram-Roudi, between her shouts of "Terror, torture, execution cannot be called moderation!"

"I was a high school student supporting the freedom fighters - the National Council of Resistance. I'm hoping to let all the nations participating at the UN know that our country is suffering. The UN should not allow criminals to torture innocent people."

Next in the procession, hundreds of people peacefully sit cross-legged in yellow shirts on the roads outside the UN building, practicing Falun Gong, a religion of the mind and body banned by the Chinese government last July. Protesters say the Communist regime sent 10,000 people to labor camps without trial, and more than 600 healthy people to mental hospitals where they were given injections for practicing Falun Gong.

"We want to appeal to the leaders and people of the world to support us and stop the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. We are not political," says one Falun Gong protester.

Next to the yellow shirts are Taiwanese protesters, dancing with made-up Republic of Taiwan flags, and women singing a popular nationalist Taiwan song: "Hold Our Dream."

"We would like Taiwan to be a member of the UN. We are definitely not a part of Communist China. Taiwan is Taiwan. China is China - a completely different country," says protester Alice Yun.

Will their efforts have any effect on the summit participants? Some people think they will at least get the ear of Khatami, and maybe the Chinese leaders, too.

"I think it has to have an effect for an individual that is leading a government and hoping to make changes and is looking for American support," says Rabbi Jerome Epstein. "While the effect may not be monumental, I think these kinds of things have an incremental effect."

But New Yorker Sandra Nobel, who was observing anti-Khatami protests, doesn't think anyone will listen. But for her, that's not the point.

"I don't think it's going to have any influence, but at least they gave their message.... We must continue to try to fight for freedom - for what we believe is just."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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