Religious Freedom Act Shines Spotlight on Persecution Problem

If you think that the age of the martyrs is something that belongs to Christianity's past, you've not been paying attention to the 20th century. In fact, religiously motivated persecution is as much a mark of the last hundred years as the invention of the automobile or the spread of mass technology.

“In sheer numbers, this has been the worst single century of persecution for Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism,” says human rights activist Nina Shea, author of the 1997 study, In the Lion's Den, chronicling the oppression, murder, and torture of Christians in countries around the world today. Vast numbers have died simply because of their religious identity.”

Verifiable figures are hard to come by. But, given a century that began with pogroms against Jews in Russia, saw the destruction of more than 1 million Armenian Christians by retreating Turkish armies in World War I, witnessed the midcentury genocide of European Jewry, the destruction of countless numbers of Chinese Christians under Mao, and 70 years of a Church silenced behind an Iron Curtain—few will quibble with the notion that the 20th century has earned a special distinction in the annals of religious hatred.

Worse yet is the situation is not improving. While religion-based discrimination may have eased in much of the former Soviet bloc, for Christians in Sudan, Algeria, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, and other countries, it's still the age of martyrs.

In Sudan, the militant Islamic government of Hassan al-Turabi threatens the lives of millions of Christians and animists through war and starvation. While seeking expanded trade relations with the United States, China continues a brutal four-year crackdown on Protestant underground churches and Catholics who maintain ties with the Vatican. In Pakistan and India, the policies of Muslim and Hindu nationalists have created a growing climate of intolerance and violence against religious minorities.

“There seems to be the assumption that everything is all right now that the Berlin Wall has fallen,” said Wilfred Wong, who works with Jubilee Campaign, a British-based human rights group, in a recent interview in Christianity Today. “There is a lack of recognition that Christians are still facing severe persecution in many places.”

‘The Persecution Movement’

The good news is that that perception is changing. In the United States, a newly energized movement of Christians—The New York Times recently dubbed it “the persecution movement”—has risen in the past several years to counter the widespread ignorance and indifference to the plight of persecuted religious minorities by pressing for political and social change, and by coordinating the efforts of missionaries, human rights groups, and relief organizations.

Better still, last month, over much opposition, a coalition of religious and human rights groups, including the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), the policy arm of the U.S. Catholic bishops, and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), persuaded lawmakers and eventually the Clinton administration to make religious liberty a key foreign policy consideration of the U.S. government.

In early October, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (S 1868) which would require the president to take action against countries that engage in a pattern of egregious systematic religious persecution.

The measure was husbanded through Congress over a period of two years by Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.), and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), along with House members Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Christopher Smith (R-N.J.).

The Senate bill, similar to a measure passed by the House last May, establishes an independent 10-member federal Commission on International Religious Liberty with a $3 million budget to investigate religious persecution abroad, report on it annually in May, and recommend courses of action to the president. Further, each fall the State Department will be required to file its own report on violations of religious freedom, and outline possible U.S. responses in each case.

In addition, the measure creates a special State Department post of ambassador-at-large for religious liberty.

This “double reporting,” advocates say, will put pressure on the administration to speak out against, or even penalize scores of nations that are imprisoning, torturing, or, in some cases, killing people because of their faith.

According to State Department figures, more than 70 nations have a record of serious violations of the religious rights of citizens and foreign workers.

A Range of Punishments

The range of punitive options include private rebuke, public condemnation, opposition to invitations to host the Olympic Games, halting scientific and cultural exchanges and state visits, forbidding any U.S. bank from loaning more than $10 million to the offending country, halting government aid or security assistance and, most seriously, imposing trade sanctions, including a ban on export licenses of goods and technology.

“The big thing that the bill does,” said Gerry Powers, director of the USCC's Office for International Justice and Peace, “is give religious persecution a profile in public policy debate that it hasn't had before. It provides an overall framework that ensures that the issue is on the front burner.”

In the past, Powers told the Register , U.S. responses to instances of religious persecution have lacked consistency: “All rights are linked. Even the secular human rights community has come around to the notion that if religious rights are violated, then other human rights will be, too. The point of the legislation is to ensure that religious liberty gets the same attention that other human rights get.”

It was the threat of legislation mandating automatic trade sanctions on countries that engage in persecution that, in part, “spooked” the Clinton administration.

The earlier House bill, sponsored by Wolf and Specter, called for cutoffs of U.S. aid to systematic offenders, including access to loans by international financial organizations—a stipulation that government officials feared would hamper U.S. foreign diplomacy, and which were also a source of concern to Catholic Church officials who oppose comprehensive economic sanctions regimes on moral and humanitarian grounds. (The House bill also highlighted the persecution of Christians, while the bill the president signed expresses concern for the rights of all religious groups.)

Trade and commerce organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce and free-trade and agriculture lobbies such as USA*Engage also vigorously opposed the legislation.

The Senate bill, however, while requiring government response to the most serious violations of religious rights, permits a broad, flexible range of actions on the part of the president, with exemptions for humanitarian aid and waiver authority for cases where action would be counterproductive or where national security interests intervene.

It's worth noting that the law targets only the most egregious forms of systematic repression—torture, rape, killing, imprisonment—not all instances of religion-based discrimination. (Russia's new anti-proselytism law would be an example of the latter.)

White House's Grudging Approval

The president signed the bill into law Oct. 28 with a less than hearty endorsement.

“I commend the Congress for incorporating flexibility in the several provisions concerning the imposition of economic measures,” Clinton said after the signing. “Although I am concerned that such measures could result in even greater pressures, and possibly reprisals, against minority religious communities that the bill is intended to help, I note that Section 402 mandates these measures only in the most extreme and egregious cases of religious persecution.”

Administration officials have also worried that the measure might interfere with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) attempts to deport aliens who claim asylum on the basis of religious persecution abroad, and create a “hierarchy” of human rights in which religious liberty considerations predominate.

That last objection has not only been challenged by religious leaders, but by some policy analysts as well.

“Of course there's a hierarchy of rights,” says Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Keeping people from practicing their faith is doing something far more cruel to them than keeping them from reading a newspaper. The freedom to worship God is as essential to human life as nourishment and oxygen. To deny that right cuts a very deep wound, indeed.”

Most Basic Human Right

That echoes Pope John Paul II's widely noted remarks to the Vatican diplomatic corps last January where he called religious freedom “the most fundamental human freedom, that of practicing one's faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living.”

At an April 28 White House meeting with members of the NAE, the president even suggested that the threat of mandatory sanctions might put pressure on him and the rest of the government to “fudge facts” in order to avoid imposing penalties on trading partners, according to Rev. Richard Cizik, acting director of the NAE's office for governmental affairs, who was present at the meeting.

“I was astonished,” Rev. Cizik told the Register. “It was an unintended admission that our own government doesn't tell the whole truth about the facts and circumstances of religious persecution” when that cuts across economic interests. That makes the new law's provision for independent watchdog committees all the more essential, he added.

Nevertheless, said Rev. Cizik, who spearheaded the call in January 1996 for “a movement of conscience” to curb international religious persecution, the passage of the bill represents “a milestone in the fight for human rights for believers. In the end, everybody got on the same page. In the midst of the partisan acrimony of the last session of Congress, the bill's success is a remarkable achievement. It gives us some leverage to get our own government to do what it ought to do.”

Rev. Cizik worries, however, that, given the climate of political acrimony in Washington, D.C., these days, “the new commission will become a forum for partisan attacks on the administration.

“We're going to need a great deal of wisdom and sophistication in order to work together with our own government and with officials overseas. Will we be up to it? That's the question.”

But for human rights activists working in the field, the new awareness of the plight of persecuted believers overseas, and attempts to relieve conditions, can't come too soon.

Buzz Word for Inaction

To critics who charge that persecution activists reduce complex political situations which may have economic, cultural, and even ethnic dimensions to a simple conflict of religions, Shea responds that “the word ‘complicated’ too often is a recipe for paralysis. Every human situation is complicated. Bosnia is complicated, Kosovo is complicated, South Africa was complicated. That's always true.”

But in every case, said Shea, “the idea is invoked in order to bring paralysis, and to justify a lack of action.”

Many commentators have voiced the concern that unless the issue of religious liberty is faced squarely in these waning days of the 20th century, and on a global scale, darker crises may well be awaiting us around the millennial bend.

Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington's provocative 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, raises fears that, unless there's a renewed appreciation of the part religion plays in culture, the new century may be marked by “conflicts of civilizations that are at heart religious.”

Whereas the 19th century was marked by conflicts between nation-states, and the 20th by ideological conflicts, the author says, the coming century may be driven not by economics or ideology, but by the clash of cultural and religious values.

Rev. Cizik agrees. “The good news is that we have choices,” he said. “We can bridge differences between cultures, we can come to common understandings about universal principles.”

It doesn't have to be a century of conflict.

“The developments of the past two years, the signing into law of the International Religious Freedom Act,” he said, “are positive steps in that direction.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.