SBC Life Articles

Still Falling Short

The United States government's policies toward religious persecution overseas remain inadequate two years after passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, according to a recent report from a commission established by the law.

In an eleven-page report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom complimented the State Department's fact-finding but expressed disappointment with its policies involving persecution of religious adherents. Among the criticisms of the State Department for its September report on religious liberty overseas and the department's handling of the issue the last two years were:

• A failure to add to the seven countries of particular concern designated in 1999, even though others were recommended by the commission.

• A refusal to take further action this year against any of the "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) already cited, though religious freedom has continued to decline in countries such as China and Sudan.

• An unwillingness to publicize sanctions it has imposed on CPCs.

• Reporting on a country's "improvements" in a way that can be misleading when measured in the context of the overall situation.

"With a few exceptions, the State Department has done a highly commendable job in its first two annual reports of telling the tragic story of religious people around the globe. This year's report shows a more complete understanding of religious freedom issues and reflects extensive fact-finding verification," said Elliott Abrams, chairman of the Commission on International Religious Freedom, at a news conference on Capitol Hill. "The problem is in what the State Department and the administration do with the information they have so painstakingly cataloged."

The commission was "very disappointed" Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not name Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan as CPCs this year, according to the report. In July, the panel recommended Albright add the four countries to the CPC list. She chose instead to designate as CPCs for a second year Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan, as well as the Milosevic regime in Serbia and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The State Department's decision in September to take no additional action on the CPCs designated in 1999 is an "indefensible policy" in the case of China and Sudan, said commission member Nina Shea.

The condition in Sudan "continues to deteriorate, and there is no evidence to suggest that the identified sanctions have had any effect on the religious freedom policies of the government of Sudan," Shea said at the news conference. Shea continued that concerning China, Albright said there would be "no further action despite the department's own finding of a marked deterioration" in religious liberty.

In announcing CPCs, the State Department has done so by a letter to Congress, which is not an effective way to publicize its action, Abrams said.

The militant Islamic regime in Sudan continues to carry out a campaign of bombing, murder, enslavement, and displacement against Christians, animists, and other Muslims in the southern part of the country. There has been an increase by the communist government in China in arrests of members of the Falun Gong sect, some of whom have been killed, as well as intensified persecution of Christians in unregistered churches and executions of Muslims.

There have been several areas where the International Religious Freedom Act has had a positive influence on a "micro level," said panel member David Saperstein, noting, however, that the trends have not been good on a "macro level."

Abrams acknowledged the promotion of religious freedom overseas is a "long-term process" that will require a commitment from the new administration. The current administration's failure to do more since legislation was adopted in late 1998 could be attributed to the infancy of the law and effort, as well as the many American interests and views expressed on the issue, Abrams said. He also said, "Figuring out precisely what the United States can do that will work is very difficult."

At a minimum, the president can use his "bully pulpit" to advocate for religious liberty, Shea said. Only two days before the Dec. 8 news conference, Clinton for the first time condemned publicly Sudan's campaign, including slavery, against its citizens.

The commission expressed regret at the recent departure of Robert Seiple, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom during the office's first two years. The panel urged the next president to act quickly to fill the post.

Passage of the International Religious Freedom Act was the result of a long and often contentious struggle that prevented earlier versions from adoption. The movement to approve such a measure was fueled by a growing awareness beginning in the mid-1990s of the widespread nature of the persecution inflicted especially on Christians overseas.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was among a broad array of organizations that worked for passage of the bill. Others supporting the legislation included the Christian Legal Society, Anti-defamation League, National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Episcopal Church, Christian Coalition, and American Jewish Committee.