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Lott, Gingrich endorse legislation on persecution; Clinton opposes it

WASHINGTON (BP)–The top two leaders in Congress have endorsed a legislative effort establishing a new system of dealing with religious persecution overseas, but the White House has announced its opposition.
After meeting with proponents of the congressional effort Sept. 10, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R.-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R.-Miss., announced their support of the anti-persecution push.
A day before, however, a State Department official told a House of Representatives committee the Clinton administration opposes the legislation designed to thwart the problem.
In response, a longtime international religious liberty advocate in the House sharply criticized the administration’s position and arguments.
The White House expressed opposition to the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, sponsored in the House by Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., and in the Senate by Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa.
The bill would:
— establish a new White House position, director of the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring, to report on persecution overseas;
— provide for sanctions against governments that support or fail to prevent persecution; and
— improve asylum proceedings for victims of religious persecution.
While Gingrich and Lott did not mention the Wolf-Specter legislation in endorsing the anti-persecution effort, they made it clear they supported such an approach.
“I think we’re going to work in both the House and Senate to convince the Clinton administration to withdraw its opposition to an office in the White House, to recognize the need for America to take a leading role, not a passive role, not a tentative role, but a leading role in being a witness around the world on behalf of” religious liberty, Gingrich said.
The Senate will “address this question legislatively, and we’re going to do it now. We’re going to do it this year,” Lott said.
Gingrich and Lott made their endorsements after meeting with about 30 bill supporters, including Richard Land and Will Dodson of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. In what Lott later described as an “emotional experience,” Tsultrim Dolma, a former Tibetan nun, told them about the persecution she experienced at the hands of Chinese police.
“We are pleased with the commitments which have been made by Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Lott to support this effort,” Dodson said. “This is indeed major progress in the effort to produce legislation which addresses the issue of religious persecution. Furthermore, it was very encouraging to see the attention which this event was given by the media. It occurred to me as I witnessed a horde of reporters enter the room after our private meeting that this is the kind of attention which this issue deserves.”
Advocates of the Wolf-Specter bill have said the legislation may need to be changed in some areas, but the White House went beyond such an approach by attacking its core proposals.
In delivering the administration’s view Sept. 9, Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck told the House International Relations Committee, according to his written statement, the White House opposed the current Wolf-Specter bill because it:
— “Is a blunt instrument that is more likely to harm, rather than aid, victims of religious persecution;
— “Runs the risk of harming vital bilateral relations with key allies and regional powers and undercutting U.S. government efforts to promote the very regional peace and reconciliation that can foster religious tolerance and understanding from Europe to the Middle East to South Asia;
— “Creates a confusing bureaucratic structure for dealing with religious persecution at the very time the Department of State is consolidating its authority and expanding its effectiveness on these issues; and
— “Establishes a de facto hierarchy of human rights violations that would severely damage U.S. efforts — long supported by the religious community — to ensure that all aspects of civil and political rights are protested.”
At the Sept. 10 hearing, Shattuck’s testimony brought an impassioned rebuke from Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., a nine-term congressman who has traveled around the world investigating religious freedom abuses. He said he is “extremely dismayed and very disappointed” the White House would condemn Wolf-Specter while “paying lip service to the objectives of the bill.”
“If a country is abusing its own people and putting them in prison and torturing those people because of their religious expression … I think we need to make a very strong statement to that country,” Smith said. “And putting at risk their foreign aid to me seems to be the least … that we should be doing to advance the cause” for those who are imprisoned for their faith.
“If you push the ball forward in the area of one human rights protection, you do not correspondingly push the ball backwards with regards to others. So that is an absolute straw man argument,” he said.
Religious freedom “has to start getting its rightful place at the human rights table, and this legislation does that,” Smith said.
“It’s about time we said, ‘Religious intolerance will not be countenanced, will not be allowed to go on.’ And this bill by Mr. Wolf is a small step. It’s a minimal policy.
“This legislation may not be perfect … but yesterday’s testimony was a clear repudiation, and hopefully there will be a groundswell of support for the legislation, and we can work out the details,” he said.
Shattuck said in his written testimony “advancing religious freedom is a foreign policy priority” of the administration and it is committed to addressing the “grave problem” of persecution.
Last November, the Clinton administration established a 20-member advisory committee on religious liberty overseas within the State Department. In July, the State Department issued a 56-page report on religious freedom in other countries, with emphasis on the persecution of Christians. The report was mandated by Congress.
ERLC President Land, who said last year the in-house advisory committee was inadequate, told the House committee Sept. 10 legislation is needed because he is “not willing to trust this issue to the State Department.”
Even Don Argue, National Association of Evangelicals president and a member of the advisory committee, said Shattuck’s testimony represented “business as usual, and we cannot have business as usual.” Argue endorsed the bill.
The hearings followed by less than two weeks a letter from more than 80 religious, academic and public policy leaders asking congressional leaders to act on anti-persecution legislation before they adjourn this year. In addition to Argue and Land, other signers were Southern Baptist Convention President Tom Elliff and former SBC President Jim Henry, also a member of the State Department’s advisory committee.