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Clinton confirms opposition to religious persecution bill


WASHINGTON (BP)–President Clinton has reiterated his opposition to a congressional measure designed to thwart religious persecution overseas.
The president reinforced his position on the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act to a group of about 60 evangelical Christians at a White House briefing sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals. In an address of about 15 minutes to the group, Clinton said legislation that calls for automatic sanctions, like the religious persecution proposal, can lead to an administration being deceitful.
“What always happens if you have automatic sanctions legislation is, it puts enormous pressure on whoever is in the executive branch to fudge an evaluation of the facts of what is going on. And that’s not what you want. What you want is to leave the president some flexibility to impose sanctions, some flexibility with a range of appropriate reactions,” he said, according to a report in The New York Times.
Clinton did not say the administration had “fudged” the facts to avoid automatic sanctions, The Times reported.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., a chief sponsor of the bill, criticized the president’s concerns, The Washington Times reported, saying Clinton “doesn’t believe in separation of powers; he believes in no power for the Congress. He doesn’t understand that Congress makes the laws … and when you have a law, it is supposed to be followed.”
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., and Specter, would ban exports and nonhumanitarian aid to governments found guilty of widespread persecution of religious adherents or of failing to try to stop such persecution.The proposal would establish an office of religious persecution monitoring in the State Department. The secretary of state would rule whether a government has committed such a violation. If a regime is found guilty, sanctions would take effect, unless the president chose to waive them as a matter of American national interest or if he determines a waiver would further the legislation’s purposes.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill in May or shortly thereafter. The House Judiciary Committee approved it 31-5 in late March.
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R.-Texas, predicted the House would pass the bill. “We expect a substantial number of Democrats as well as Republicans to be behind this,” said Horace Cooper, Armey’s press secretary, The Washington Times reported.
Clinton’s comments to evangelicals at the White House came April 27 when he dropped in on an NAE briefing featuring national security adviser Sandy Berger. The NAE, a longtime supporter of the Wolf-Specter bill, had reiterated its position to the administration earlier in the day. The president did not take questions from the group, a NAE spokesman said.
“You could tell from his comments that (Clinton knew) we disagreed with him,” said Rich Cizik, NAE’s policy analyst. “We remain supporters of the bill and happen to think that a good, strong bill out of the House will provide leverage in the conference committee.”
It appears a conference committee will be necessary because the Senate seems unlikely to approve the Wolf-Specter proposal but an alternative instead, Cizik said. After the White House meeting, the NAE group met with Sen. Jesse Helms, R.-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms is a cosponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act, which has Sen. Don Nickles, R.-Okla., as its prime sponsor.
Nickles’ bill takes a different approach to the problem of religious persecution. It would place in the State Department an office on international religious freedom headed by an ambassador at large. It also would establish a commission on international religious persecution, with two members appointed by the president, two by the president pro tem of the Senate and two by the speaker of the House. Unlike the Wolf-Specter bill, it would provide the president with more options in taking action against guilty governments.
In addition to NAE, other organizations that have endorsed the Wolf-Specter bill include the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, U.S. Catholic Conference, Family Research Council, Amnesty International, Christian Coalition, National Jewish Coalition and International Campaign for Tibet.
Among organizations opposed to the Wolf-Specter legislation are the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
Countries cited most frequently where religious persecution persists include China, Sudan, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Laos and Burma.

Compiled by Tom Strode.