News Articles

Religious persecution bills introduced in Senate, House

WASHINGTON (BP)–Legislation designed to lessen religious persecution in foreign countries has been introduced in both houses of Congress.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act May 20. The legislation is S. 772 in the Senate and H.R. 1685 in the House of Representatives.
Each bill will:
— 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;
— improve asylum proceedings for victims of religious persecution.
The legislation also would level immediate sanctions against Sudan, an African country that bill proponents say has one of the worst records on religious persecution. Enslavement of Christian women and children is commonly practiced.
The persecution of Christians, largely in communist and Muslim-dominated countries, has gained increasing attention in the United States in the last 18 months. It is estimated about 100 million Christians have been martyred in this century, more than the previous 19 centuries combined. It also is estimated from 200 to 250 million Christians will be persecuted in 1997.
In response to calls for action to thwart such persecution, the Clinton administration named in the fall a 20-member, State Department-administered committee on religious liberty overseas. The Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission and others described the panel as inadequate. The new legislation is the first binding congressional action on the issue.
The bills call for the director of the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring to make an annual report determining whether a country is guilty of category one or two religious persecution. Category one describes government support for or implementation of widespread religious persecution, including killing, rape, imprisonment, abduction, torture, enslavement or forced mass resettlement. In category two, the government does not carry out persecution but fails to make serious efforts to prevent it.
Among the sanctions provided for are a ban on all exports to foreign government entities that carry out acts of persecution, as well as elimination of non-humanitarian aid and development bank loans to offending governments. The legislation also instructs the president to consider religious persecution as an important factor in whether to support a country’s membership in the World Trade Organization.
At a news conference in the Capitol announcing introduction of the bills, Wolf said, “U.S. policy does not reflect an understanding of the seriousness and the intensity of this human tragedy. We cannot, and should not, be silent any longer. When we speak for Christians, we also speak for Muslims. When we speak for Jews, we also speak for the Bahai’s.”
While the bills have bipartisan support, Wolf said he would be disappointed if a Republican-controlled Congress did not adopt the legislation this year.
Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R.-Ark., a member of a Southern Baptist church, called religious persecution the “world’s dirty little secret.”
Rep. Tony Hall., D.-Ohio, expressed gratitude for President Clinton’s “first step” of appointing an advisory committee within the State Department but said “we can go much further; we need to go much further.”
Ralph Reed, outgoing executive director of the Christian Coalition, said, “Far more important than eliminating the deficit, far more important than lowering taxes is speaking for the voiceless, defending the defenseless and protecting the innocent. … And we believe that if the United States makes the center of its foreign policy profits rather than people and money rather than human rights, then we will have lost our soul as a nation.”
In a written statement distributed at the news conference, Southern Baptist Convention President Tom Elliff said, “It is time for the citizens of the United States, people whose ancestors often were forced to flee to these very shores to escape religious persecution, to send this strong signal to those nations where persecution is evident: We neither countenance religious persecution nor feel compelled to support through trade, monetary or military aid any nation which does.”
Others supporting the legislation include the National Association of Evangelicals, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Empower America, Evangelicals for Social Action, Christian Solidarity, Voice of the Martyrs and the Center for Jewish and Christian Values.
The SBC passed a resolution at its 1996 annual meeting condemning religious persecution. The first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church was observed in September. The prayer observance will be held from Sept. 28 to Nov. 16 this year.