News Articles

7/24/97 Report on religious freedom cites China, others as offenders

WASHINGTON (BP)–A U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom cites, as expected, communist and Islamic-controlled countries as the chief oppressors of Christianity and other religions.
The congressionally initiated report focuses on the treatment of Christians, as mandated by the Senate and House of Representatives, but also discusses the government’s handling of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and other religious adherents in 78 countries. The 56-page document also describes the United States’ actions related to religious liberty in each country.
“The issue of persecution is a serious one, affecting many religions,” said John Shattuck, assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, at a news briefing. “The issue has not received much attention with respect to Christians. The (focus) of this report, at the request of Congress, is that subject. But let me underscore again that the U.S. commitment to religious freedom encompasses all religions.”
The persecution of Christians has received enhanced attention the last 18 months as a major problem in several countries because of its breadth and severity, but Shattuck seemed hesitant to ascribe more significance to discrimination against followers of Jesus than other adherents. When asked by a reporter if he agreed Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, Shattuck at first avoided a direct response, then, when pressed, said, “we do not see this topic as more important than other topics involving religious freedom.”
Not surprisingly, China and fellow communist-controlled Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam were among the greatest religious oppressors, according to the report, as well as Muslim-dominated countries such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
China has sought to limit all religious activity to state-sanctioned churches and organizations but, in practice, the policy “has been implemented unevenly and in some areas unauthorized groups have flourished,” the report says. The Clinton administration has made religious liberty a “major focus” of its human rights policy toward China, according to the report. President Clinton, Vice President Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright all have expressed concerns about religious freedom to Chinese officials during the last nine months, it says.
In Saudi Arabia, religious freedom does not exist, the report says. All citizens must be Muslims, according to the report. Privately led worship services are held regularly at one or more U.S. diplomatic facilities in the country. U.S. government employees and private American citizens attend, the report says.
Some advocates for persecuted believers and some members of Congress greeted the July 22 report with less than praise.
“It’s a first step,” said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s religious freedom program, to The Washington Times. “Now we have to change our foreign policy. We need to show that this country cares as much about religious freedom as we do for the integrity of intellectual property.”
The greatest effect of the report will be to “legitimize the issue and sensitize the diplomatic corps, who are tone-deaf to the persecution of Christians,” she said, according to The Times.
Sen Tim Hutchinson, R.-Ark., criticized the State Department for the delay in releasing a report originally scheduled for Jan. 15.
“I have serious concerns that officials in this administration do not want to engage in open discussion about U.S. policy toward China, and I am deeply disturbed by the timing of this report, especially in light of the House vote on MFN just a few weeks ago,” Hutchinson said in a written statement. “The revelation that human rights abuses continue to worsen in China while our foreign policy remains status quo is the tacit endorsement of everything from forced abortions to the sterilization of the mentally disabled.”
Attempts to block most-favored-nation trade status for China were defeated in the House and Senate in recent weeks. The Clinton administration favored MFN status for China, while some Christian organizations, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, opposed it.
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said in a written statement he hoped the administration “will do a little more than talk tough on paper when dealing with Beijing.”
Shattuck said he believes “there has been no administration that has focused more on this topic than the Clinton administration.” He cited 10 examples of what the administration has done recently to promote religious liberty overseas, including the identification of religious freedom as a foreign policy priority and the instruction to all U.S. diplomatic posts to devote more attention to religious freedom.
He also mentioned the establishment of the 20-member, State Department-administered Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, which has been meeting this year. Shea is a member of the committee, as is Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla., and former Southern Baptist Convention president.
Bills have been introduced in both the Senate and House that would establish a White House office to monitor religious persecution and would provide for sanctions against governments that support or fail to prevent persecution.
The report on religious freedom may be accessed at the State Department’s web site: www.state.gov.