Kaifeng Seder
Kaifeng SederJason Jia Shuo.

China should act to ensure religious freedoms, a top US opposition lawmaker said at the close of an Asia trip held as President Barack Obama also visits the region.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the number-two Republican in the lower chamber of the US Congress, was speaking in China as a bipartisan congressional delegation he was leading concluded.

"Religion is something that's constitutionally protected for us, and we want to be able to promote that as a human right across the world," Cantor told AFP from Shanghai late Saturday at the end of a trip to China, South Korea and Japan.

"I think it's a legitimate issue, and I look forward to hopefully being able to meet with the Chinese when I'm back in Washington to make the case for religious freedom (in China)," he added.

Foreign governments and campaign groups regularly accuse Beijing of tightly controlling religious freedoms. China maintains it has "protected the legal rights and interests" of worshippers.

In Shanghai, Cantor, who is the highest-ranking Jewish Republican in the US Congress, met with a local rabbi and visited Ohel Rachel, a historic synagogue that is currently only open to the Jewish community on high holy days.

Cantor said he plans to urge Chinese officials in Washington upon his return to allow regular access to the synagogue for Shanghai's Jewish community, which is comprised mainly of expatriates.

Chinese Jewry: Experiencing a Revival?

More and more steps have been made to reach out to Chinese Jewry over the past decade, in light of a dramatic upturn in Chinese-Israel relations. 

About 2,500 Jews are estimated to be living in China, according to a 2012 poll published in the American Jewish Year Book

Chinese Jewry made headlines recently after some 100 Jews held a Passover Seder in Kaifeng, in cooperation with the Shavei Israel organization. 

Scholars believe the first Jews settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China's imperial capitals, during the 8th or 9th Century. They are said to have been Sephardic Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route and established themselves in the city with the blessing of the Chinese emperor.

In 1163, Kaifeng's Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions throughout the centuries. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But widespread intermarriage and assimilation, as well as the death of the community's last rabbi, brought about its demise by the middle of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, many of the families sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continued to observe various Jewish customs. Currently, there are estimated to be approximately 1,000 Jewish descendants in Kaifeng.