News Articles

House easily approves religious persecution bill

WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation intended to thwart religious persecution overseas after months of opposition especially from business and trade groups.
The House voted 375-41 in favor of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act May 14. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., 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.
In the Senate, a bill by Sen Don Nickles, R.-Okla., which takes a different approach to the problem of persecution, may have the inside track. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration is opposed to both bills, especially the Wolf-Specter proposal.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he was pleased the Wolf-Specter bill had passed a “major hurdle.”
“We need to focus our efforts on making sure the senators pass the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act as well,” Land said.
“We need to pray that the Clinton administration will cease and desist from its implacable opposition to this very reasonable and moderate attempt to defend the basic human rights of people of religious faith around the world. This bill seeks to put the government of the United States where it ought to be, solidly behind people who are being persecuted for conscience sake around the world. That is where the vast majority of American people want our government to be, and it is where our beliefs and heritage demand that we be.”
Wolf said, “Passage of this bill sends a message to those around the world that are being persecuted for their faith that we are speaking out for them, that there is hope that persecution of people of faith will not be tolerated.”
Several changes have been made in the Wolf-Specter proposal, which was first introduced two years ago, in recent months in the face of criticism. Before the vote on the House floor, the following alterations had been made:
— The office of religious persecution monitoring was moved from the White House to the State Department.
— The president’s authority to waive sanctions was expanded from protecting national interest to include his determination such a move would further the legislation’s purposes.
— The authority to determine whether a country has committed a violation was transfered from the director of the office of religious persection monitoring to the secretary of state.
— Provisions guaranteeing asylum to persecution vicitms were eliminated.
— Sanctions against the government of Sudan, which is often considered the greatest persecutor of religious believers, were removed.
The Clinton administration has criticized the bill for requiring automatic sanctions and for what it calls a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Even though Nickles’ bill provides more latitude for the president in dealing with violations of religious liberty, the administration also criticized it in a recent hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Nickles’ bill, the International Religious Freedom Act, 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.
Sen Jesse Helms, R.-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, supports the Nickles bill. Some on Capitol Hill have predicted the Senate will adopt Nickles’ bill, leaving the differences to be worked out in a conference committee.
In addition to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, organizations endorsing the Wolf-Specter bill include the National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Family Research Council, Amnesty International, Christian Coalition, National Jewish Coalition and International Campaign for Tibet.
The National Council of Churches has been a leading opponent among religious organizations.
Those cited most frequently as countries where religious persecution persists include China, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Laos and Burma.