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President signs into law anti-persecution legislation

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Clinton has signed into law legislation intended to alleviate religious persecution in foreign countries.
The president signed the International Religious Freedom Act Oct. 27 without a ceremony. The U.S. Senate voted 98-0 Oct. 9 for the bill, while the House of Representatives approved it without dissent the next day.
Clinton commended Congress, which adopted the bill without opposition, for passing a bill “that will provide the executive branch with the flexibility needed to advance this effort.” He complained in a written statement, however, about Congress’ inflexibility in directing the president to negotiate with foreign governments for certain policy reasons and in requiring communication regarding these negotiations with Congress. The president also said the law could cause problems in foreign countries by requiring the secretary of State to give U.S. citizens access to U.S. missions for religious activities.
“Obviously, we are pleased that the president has signed this bill into law, despite the fact that the administration has been resistant to legislation from the very beginning,” said Will Dodson, public policy director for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “From President Clinton’s statement, it is obvious that the White House is still less than enthusiastic about having to deal with this legislation.”
That “lack of enthusiasm is one of the main reasons that such legislation was necessary,” Dodson said. “This law requires the president to take religious persecution seriously, whether he wants to or not.”
The president’s action signaled the close of an often-contentious struggle to pass legislation to deal with the persecution of religious adherents in other countries. Supporters of such legislation had to face the opposition of major American businesses, as well as the White House and some religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, during much of the effort.
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 his statement, Clinton said he plans to nominate Robert Seiple to the position of ambassador at large established by the law. Earlier this year, Seiple, former head of the Christian relief organization World Vision, was named special representative for international religious freedom in the Department of State.
While the law seeks to provide freedom for all religious adherents, it was the sudden awareness nearly three years ago of the widespread nature of the persecution of Christians that provided momentum for such legislation. The persecution of Christians, especially in Islamic and communist countries, gained a much higher profile beginning in early 1996. 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.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was among a broad array of organizations that worked for passage of the bill. 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.