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State Department names China, 6 others as religion violators

WASHINGTON (BP)–The State Department has named seven regimes, including China, as “countries of particular concern” in regards to religious freedom, provoking both commendation and criticism from advocates of the campaign to stem persecution overseas.
The designated violators of religious liberty, in addition to China, are Burma, Iran, Iraq and Sudan, plus Afghanistan’s Taliban, which the United States does not recognize as a government, and Serbia, which is not a country. Robert Seiple, ambassador at large for religious freedom, announced the “particularly severe violators” at a hearing before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.
The selections are part of a process required by the International Religious Freedom Act, which was adopted by Congress and signed by President Clinton last year. Another part of the procedure, an annual State Department report on global religious liberty, was released four weeks before the hearing. The 1,100-page report provides information on the degree of religious freedom in 194 countries.
Under the law, the president is required to announce within 90 days of the designation of “countries of particular concern” what action the administration will take. He has options ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanction.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said of the designations he was “encouraged that the government of the United States is giving some serious, focused and concerted attention to the heart-rending tragedy of severe persecution of people for their religious convictions in many parts of the world.”
Land said, however, it “is well past time for the United States government to make this an extremely high priority issue in our relationships with the countries guilty of this persecution. In this case, it’s better late than never.”
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., chairman of the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee, lauded Seiple’s work and called the report a “good first step” but said Clinton “made only the easy choices” on the designations.
“Six of them are pariah regimes, already under severe sanctions for reasons other than religious persecution,” Smith said in testimony prepared for the Oct. 6 hearing. “The seventh, China, must have generated a warm debate within the administration — not because the evidence is unclear about the atrocities the Chinese government commits every day against Roman Catholics, house-church Protestants, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and other believers, but because a designation of China as a country of particular concern might be ‘bad for the relationship.’ … I am glad the forces of light prevailed when it came to designating China.”
Why were Vietnam, North Korea, Laos, Cuba and Saudi Arabia not included? Smith asked. “Does the administration really believe these governments have not ‘engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom?’ Or were the president and his advisers more worried about ‘injuring the relationship’ — or interfering with ongoing efforts to improve the relationship — than with giving the honest assessment required by the plain language of the statute?”
In his written testimony, Seiple acknowledged there “are many other countries that our report discusses where religious freedoms appear to be suppressed.” Saudi Arabia and others are “beginning to take steps to address the problem,” and North Korea and others may suppress religious liberty but the State Department lacks the “data to make an informed assessment,” he said.
The International Religious Freedom Commission, which was established by the 1998 law, is especially pleased with the designations of China and Sudan, panel member Nina Shea testified at the hearing. China has more religious prisoners than any other country, and Sudan is conducting military campaigns, including enslavement, against its religious minorities.
The commission has decided to study only China and Sudan during its first year of work, Shea said.
“I believe there is no better way to help the persecuted religious believers in Vietnam, Pakistan, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere than to see China and Sudan become first cases on a short list of countries where the U.S. is prepared to spend political capital to end the scourge of religious genocide and persecution,” she said in her written testimony.
Shea made two recommendations to the White House:
— Make Sudan a pariah state “with the same concerted moral and political action that succeeded in making a pariah out of the apartheid government of South Africa.”
— Demonstrate that the United States “will not build its relations with China on sand.”
Land said, “The harsh and simple fact is that the only way the lot of these persecuted people is going to improve as religious minorities in their own countries is for the government of “the land of the free” to put the power, the prestige and the focused attention of that government on the side of these victims of persecution and prisoners of conscience. It’s the right thing to do, and in doing so we are standing in the very best of our tradition as Americans.”
Enactment of the legislation establishing the process was the result of a long and often contentious struggle. Its passage came after the White House, major American businesses and some religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, opposed previous versions.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was among a broad array of organizations that worked for passage of the bill. Other organizations supporting the legislation included Christian Legal Society, Anti-Defamation League, National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Episcopal Church, Christian Coalition and American Jewish Committee.
It is estimated more followers of Christ have died for their faith in the 20th century than in all the 19 previous centuries combined.