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Congress passes anti-persecution bill; Clinton pledges to sign it into law

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress, acting as it sought to wrap up business for the year, passed without opposition a bill to equip the federal government to help deter religious persecution overseas.
The Senate voted 98-0 Oct. 9 for the International Religious Freedom Act. The House approved it without dissent the following day. In the House, the bill was brought to the floor under suspension of the rules, and no opposition was expressed.
President Clinton confirmed he would sign the legislation.
Congress’ action as it sought to complete budget work before ending this session followed an arduous path to passage of a bill to deal with the problem of persecution of religious adherents in other countries. The House passed in May by a 375-41 vote another anti-persecution measure, the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act. The bill called for automatic sanctions against countries found guilty of ongoing persecution or of failing to seek to stop such persecution. It would have banned exports and nonhumanitarian aid to such governments.
The White House opposed the bill, and some Republican and Democratic senators also refused to support such an approach. Sen. Don Nickles, R.-Okla., introduced the alternative eventually adopted by Congress. He made a series of changes to the legislation in order to gain bipartisan approval and Clinton’s support.
The bill establishes a bipartisan commission selected by the president and Congress to report annually on countries guilty of committing or permitting violations of religious liberty. The president, who is required to respond to the report, has options ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanction to use in dealing with offending governments.
In a written statement after the Senate vote, Clinton called it a “welcome and responsible addition” to his administration’s efforts on behalf of religious liberty in other countries. “Its principled, measured approach rightly emphasizes effective remedies over broad, symbolic gestures,” the president said.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was among a broad array of organizations that worked for passage of the bill.
“Words really cannot express how grateful I am that a bill has been passed by Congress which we expect to be signed into law by the president,” said Will Dodson, the ERLC’s director of public policy. “Congress is to be commended for all of its hard work on this legislation. It is outstanding legislation. I believe it will prove to be a very useful tool in alleviating the problem of suffering on account of faith around the world. And also, very importantly, it will provide greater occasion for people to share their faith with others without fear of persecution.
“Despite the fact that this bill ended up passing unanimously, it was very, very difficult getting to the point where that was possible. Certain compromises had to be made to get to that point.”
Even so, Dodson said, “this is nevertheless a strong bill. I think it is significant that Congress has spoken with one voice on this issue. I think that unanimity is something that was beyond the imagination of everyone who has worked on behalf of this legislation.
“In the final analysis, I really do believe that God has been at work in this process and that what has been accomplished is the result of divine providence. Therefore, God deserves the glory and the credit for this accomplishment.”
Richard Land, the ERLC’s president, testified in behalf of anti-persecution legislation before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June.
Other organizations supporting the Nickles legislation included the Christian Coalition, Anti-Defamation League, National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Episcopal Church, Christian Legal Society and American Jewish Committee.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn., was the lead Democratic sponsor of Nickles’ bill.
The persecution of Christians, especially in Islamic and communist countries, has gained a much higher profile the last three years. It is estimated more followers of Christ have died for their faith in the 20th century than in all the 19 previous centuries combined.
Those cited most frequently as countries where religious persecution persists include China, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Laos and Burma.