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U.S. not compromising, State official tells religious freedom commission

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States has not turned “a blind eye” to religious persecution during its fight against terrorism, a State Department told a federal commission.

Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of State for global affairs, sought to assure the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom the Bush administration has not compromised its commitment to human rights, including religious freedom, in building a coalition against terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington and it still sees religious liberty as an integral part of its promotion of democracy and human rights.

“While our priorities and partners have changed, our principles have not,” Dobrianksy told the panel Nov. 27. She acknowledged some members of the anti-terrorism coalition have poor human rights records but said the United States has not “suppressed our objections to their human rights violations because of this increasing cooperation. We have [raised] and will continue to raise our concerns with our partners, regardless of their level of counter-terrorism cooperation. They are not mutually exclusive goals.”

In his opening remarks at the Capitol Hill hearing, USCIRF chairman Michael Young repeated the panel’s previously stated concerns the Bush administration not compromise its devotion to religious freedom and other human rights, saying the United States “can fight against terrorism and for human rights at the same time.”

Young wrote to Bush in early October expressing the commission’s worries the government might lose interest in the human rights conditions under anti-terrorist partners “that are among the world’s most egregious violators of religious freedom and other human rights. We urge you to continue to declare that the United States will defend religious freedom and to demonstrate its commitment to doing so,”

Dobriansky seemed to agree with the USCIRF in her Nov. 27 testimony.

“We need to continue to highlight the United States’ support for freedom of religion,” she said. “An assertive U.S. religious freedom policy will help win the war on terrorism, I think, by building bridges to the Muslim world. We must highlight that this is a war to protect human rights and religious freedom, so it is also a war to protect the practice of Islam.

“In short, to protect freedom of religion and conscience, as well as the rule of law, is to create conditions which mitigate against terrorism. Terrorism is a form of fanaticism born of hatred. At its best, religion is an antidote to fanaticism,” Dobriansky told the panel.

“We need to make a clear case to those who are persecuted and those who persecute,” she said. “We must show that promoting religious freedom is a win-win for both governments fearful of extremists and religious minorities who feel they have no voice.”

Dobriansky’s testimony did not appear to satisfy the panel completely. Commissioner Nina Shea told the under secretary she was “gratified but perplexed” by her statements. There has been a perception the United States has made tradeoffs to build the anti-terrorism coalition, especially related to Sudan, Shea said.

Two commissioners, Richard Land and Shea, signed on to a letter released only the week before calling for Bush to reaffirm the country’s opposition to religious persecution in Sudan. The letter, which had more than 100 signers, said the administration apparently has rewarded Sudan for its cooperation by “removing obstacles to the lifting of [United Nations] sanctions and by blocking the passage of the Sudan Peace Act.”

In responding to Shea, Dobriansky acknowledged Sudan has an “egregious human rights record” but said the administration has continued to speak against the militant Islamic regime’s record. The Sudanese government has maintained its support for a campaign of bombing and attacks on Christians and animists since Sept. 11. Slave raids by Khartoum-backed troops also have been common for several years. Dobriansky also said economic sanctions against the African country have not been lifted. She said she did not “see any compromise in this regard with Sudan.”

The day after the hearing, Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the U.S. government must remain vigilant to defend religious freedom even amid the war against terrorism.

“Clearly, religious freedom continues to be imperiled in far too many nations in the world,” Land said. “And sadly, without persistent pressure and encouragement from the highest levels of the government of the United States on their counterparts in other countries, that situation is not going to change to any measurable degree.

“It is incumbent upon America to insist that its leaders remain engaged and focused on this first and most fundamental freedom — soul freedom,” Land said. “As many of the witnesses at the hearing made clear, the war on terror around the world must not be perverted by oppressor nations into a subterfuge or an excuse for labeling religious dissidents as terrorists to be suppressed.”

Some witnesses at the hearing agreed that the United States should not compromise long-term goals regarding religious liberty in order to gain short-term advantages.

“Indeed, Sudan is a test case for how religious tolerance objectives will fare in the war on terror,” said Amy Hawthorne, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The U.S. should evaluate Khartoum’s recent progress in terrorism issues on its own merits. Yet the U.S. should also not take steps that would prematurely reward Khartoum before any progress has been registered.

“In the cases of many Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with whom the U.S. has especially close relationships, some religious freedom issues may be best addressed privately,” Hawthorne said. “Yet judicious public criticism is crucial at times. What the U.S. government says publicly matters a great deal. Governments will most likely always resent it and publicly reject it, but it does make a difference.”

The belief in the Muslim world “in a worldwide campaign to destroy Islam lies at the root of both inter-religious hostilities and terrorism,” said Tamara Sonn, professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

People who suffer “under sustained conditions of economic, social and political marginalization become ready recruits for radicalization,” Sonn told the panel. “People in these conditions when offered rewards that will remove them from their humiliation and hopelessness may be susceptible to manipulation by terrorist leaders.”

The United States can help reverse this marginalization in the Islamic world “through political and humanitarian assistance,” she said. Sonn encouraged incentives, rather than punishment, as the most effective methods of “combating both sectarian violence and terrorism.”

“Political support and humanitarian aid will demonstrate the vacuity of terrorists’ claims that the West — Christians and Jews in particular — are determined to destroy Islam,” she said.

While Sonn told the commission the religious freedom of Christians and Jews in Islamic states is guaranteed, she noted in her written testimony traditional Islamic law does not permit attempts to bring Muslims to conversion to another faith.

In the Nov. 19 letter to Bush on Sudan, Land and Shea signed on as representatives of their organizations. Shea is the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Washington-based Freedom House. Among others signing the letter were James Merritt, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Paige Patterson and Adrian Rogers, past SBC presidents.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have approved different versions of the Sudan Peace Act, which includes provisions to increase humanitarian aid to the victims of the Islamic regime. A conference committee, however, has not moved forward with a final version. The House bill includes language that would bar foreign companies from being listed on U.S. stock exchanges if they participate in oil development in Sudan. Big business and some in the Bush administration strongly oppose that element of the House version. Profits from oil in Sudan have helped underwrite Khartoum’s military campaign.

The USCIRF consists of nine members who are appointed for two-year terms by the president and leaders in Congress. Bush named Land to the panel in September.