Legislation designed to lessen religious persecution in foreign countries was introduced in both houses of Congress in May.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act known as 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 recent months. It is estimated about 100 million Christians have been martyred in this century, more than the previous nineteen 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 twenty-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 would be 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.
The bills have bipartisan support, and 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."
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 1997 annual meeting condemning religious persecution. The first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church was observed in September '96. The prayer observance will be held Nov. 16 this year.
SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION
June 17-19, 1997
RESOLUTION ON RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION
WHEREAS, The principle of religious liberty is rooted in Scripture, demonstrated in the gospel, and foundational to the nature of the human spirit as created by God; and
WHEREAS, As Southern Baptists we believe that all people should have the God-given freedom to form and hold opinions and religious beliefs and propagate them without interference from or coercion by any government, religion, or person; and
WHEREAS, American individuals, businesses, and government officials experience ever-increasing pressure to value economic gain over religious liberties; and
WHEREAS, There is evidence in many nations of escalating imprisonment, torture, killing, and other forms of persecution which demands much greater response by the United States government and the Christian community;
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED, That we, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Dallas, Texas, June 17-19, 1997, express our opposition to religious persecution and encourage our government officials to elevate religious liberty concerns to the highest priority in foreign policy, invoking sanctions against those nations which tolerate persecution of those with differing religious beliefs; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we urge Americans to refrain from international trade, even at the risk of financial loss, with or in nations that practice religious persecution; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we respectfully encourage the media to bring these issues to the attention of the American public; and
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, That we urge believers to pray fervently for persecuted Christians worldwide and to pray for and urge government officials to eliminate such practices in countries where religious persecution exists.
Adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention
June 17-19, 1997
Morris H. Chapman
President and Chief Executive Officer Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention