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Persecution complex.

Evangelical Christians And The Catholic Bishops Are Pushing A Bill To Fight Religious Persecution Overseas, But Critics Say The Issue Isn't That Simple

Last summer Christian Coalition President Don Hodel made one of his first major public appearances in his new post at the helm of TV preacher Pat Robertson's political unit.

The audience at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that Aug. 8 was friendly, largely made up of allies of Human Events, the arch-conservative weekly newspaper that cosponsored the gathering. Hodel took the podium after presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, who had just given a crowd-pleasing speech on the need for tax reform and smaller government.

But instead of covering expected political subjects such as abortion, tax cuts or constitutional amendments, the Christian Coalition honcho had only one topic on his mind.

"We're putting another issue at the top of our priority list because it is an international crisis, and the United States of America's inaction on this subject is a disgrace," Hodel said. "That issue is worldwide religious persecution."

That speech and others like it were the beginning of an aggressive public relations push in support of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (FRPA). The legislation, sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Frank Wolf(R-Va.) and in the Senate by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), mandated the creation a Cabinet-level position at the White House to watch for religious oppression throughout the world.

Under the Wolf-Specter bill (H.R. 1685 in the House and S. 772 in the Senate), this Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring would have the power to expedite the immigration process for those seeking asylum from nations found to have been engaged in religious persecution.

Persecution would be defined as "ongoing and widespread ... killing, rape, imprisonment, abduction, torture, enslavement or forced mass resettlement ... carried out by the government or with the government's support." A secondary category would exist for persecution done without government support, but "where the government fails to take serious and sustained efforts to eliminate the persecution."

The legislation's most controversial elements were its provisions to punish guilty nations. The new White House office created by the bill would have the ability to impose a variety of automatic economic and other sanctions against transgressors. Among the options would be a ban on all exports and non-humanitarian aid, the denial of visas to officials from those nations and U.S. opposition to those countries' attempts to gain loans from the World Trade Organization.

In other words, as Specter said at the press conference to introduce the act, this bill would "put teeth into the U.S. effort to combat the persecution of religious minorities abroad."

With an uncontroversial topic, it appeared that the Christian Coalition had finally found an agenda item that could earn a broad base of support. Virtually no one condones persecution of religious minorities, and as such, the Wolf-Specter bill seemed like a popular measure to rally behind. And the Christian Coalition wasn't the only Religious Right group to sign on.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, devoted time on his popular radio show to endorsing the proposed law. "When most Christiaus think of people being martyred for their faith ... they think of New Testament figures like Paul, Stephen or ... those of the Roman Empire era who were tom apart by the lions," Dobson said. "But there are more Christian martyrs today than there were in 100 AD."

Dobson's political point man in Washington, Family Research Council President Gary Bauer, was a top booster of the bill, actually standing by Specter's side at the Capitol Hill press conference when the measure was announced.

Other evangelical Christian groups quickly endorsed the legislation, including the National Association of Evangelicals, Evangelicals for Social Action and the Traditional Values Coalition.

Not to be left out, congressional leaders also offered praise for the issue. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called Wolf-Specter "one of the top priorities of this Republican Congress." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was one of the primary endorsers of the act.

There was also no shortage of cheerleaders when the House Committee on International Relations held hearings on the FRPA in September. Bill sponsor Wolf was adamant in his demands for this legislation.

"This bill is not intended as a panacea. The international community, the president, the Congress and freedom loving people around the world must remain vigilant and courageous in standing up against religious violence," Wolf said in his testimony. "But, the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act will increase the priority given to this issue in our foreign policy and put the thugs on alert. 'The United States will no longer tolerate your behavior.'"

The CC's Hodel joined Wolf and conservative activist William Bennett in testifying before the committee. Noting that Congress had, a year earlier, passed a non-binding resolution condemning human rights abuses and denials of religious liberty to Christians, Hodel argued that the Wolf-Specter bill would be part of a natural legislative progression.

Two days after the House committee ended its hearings on Wolf-Specter, however, criticism of the proposed law began to appear in the national media. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis argued that the FRPA is "an attempt to impose a simple, mechanical solution on a complicated problem: a recipe for unintended consequences."

Lewis outlined specific and important flaws in the bill. For example, he insisted that Wolf-Specter elevates religious persecution over a variety of equally troubling kinds of injustice.

"Making religious persecution the paramount concern in our law of human rights would send a signal to other governments that we care less about such things as genocide, political repression and racial persecution," Lewis said. "It would also tell the world that we now favor what we in this country have always opposed: the idea of a hierarchy of fundamental rights."

The columnist also explained that American foreign policy could be complicated by the bill, actually making it more difficult for our government to press for better international human rights.

"Consider Saudi Arabia, for example," Lewis said. "A recent State Department report on religious discrimination in the world included a blistering section on Saudi Arabia. The director of the proposed new office in the White House could hardly fail to find that the Saudi Government engages in religious persecution. The result would be to impose economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia and, among other things, subject its diplomats to intensified visa checks. Would that advance the cause of religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia?"

Other publications and pundits weighed in as well. A Rocky Mountain News editorial described Wolf-Specter as a "reckless use of sanctions" and "bad policy." Describing yet another unintended consequence of the law, the newspaper said, "the office would have the almost theological function of defining degrees of religious persecution and fine-tuning the U.S. response. Inevitably, that office would be put in the untenable position of establishing what religions are important or politically powerful enough for the United States to defend."

The Christian Science Monitor published an editorial column by Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who described Wolf-Specter as "an idea whose time should never come." He explained that the law would "create friction with most countries outside Western Europe through American intrusion into sensitive areas of their national life. By creating an office in the White House independent of the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies, it would complicate the formidable problems of managing foreign policy."

Conservative voices spoke out, too. William F. Buckley published a column that said Wolf-Specter "would invite chaos." The Cato Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank, released a statement arguing that the FRPA could "make life worse for the very believers the lobbying groups want to help."

The Cato report also suggested that missionaries could be adversely effected. "Many Christian missionary organizations have ... publicly opposed rupturing the trade ties with China over human rights," the report explained. "Revoking China's ... trade status might make some Christians back home feel better, but it would complicate the lives of those seeking to win converts in the field. Passage of (Wolf-Specter) would have the same effect."

After having these concerns outlined by many on both ends of the political spectrum, the legislation lost some of its momentum. That slowing effect was exacerbated when the National Council of Churches, joined by American Baptist Churches, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church, spoke out against the legislation. The measure, the churches said, would do "more harm than good, particularly to Christians and those of other religious communities abroad facing persecution."

With opposition from so many Christian groups and business leaders concerned with an adverse impact on international trade, the White House soon followed with criticism of the bill, charging that it may interfere with diplomatic efforts currently under way through the State Department.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking for the White House, asserted that Wolf-Specter would create "a new and unneeded bureaucracy and deprive U.S. officials of the flexibility required to protect the overall foreign policy interests of the United Stales." Albright has already agreed to designate a new senior-level coordinator within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to specifically integrate religious persecution into the "broader foreign policy," leading many to wonder whether Wolf-Specter is necessary.

With the increasing criticism and pressure, H.R.1685 stalled in committee. The Senate version also never made it to the floor for a vote.

Wolf, still believing that the bill could be salvaged and passed, reintroduced the FRPA before Congress recessed for 1997. The "new and improved" version (now H.R. 2431) made several changes to answer some of the concerns of the bill's critics.

For example, the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring would be a part of the State Department rather than the White House, and the office's director would report to the secretary of state to avoid interference with international diplomatic missions and agreements.

Also, the president would be given wider authority to waive sanctions if doing so would "advance the objectives of the act." In other words, if the president argued successfully that sanctions triggered by the law would hurt the chances of improving religious freedom for the oppressed, then the sanctions would he waived. The president could also ignore the bill's provisions on "national security" grounds.

Wolf sounds optimistic about the changes. In an interview with Congressional Quarterly, he said, "We have developed what I call a balanced bill. We sought the changes people recommended. We improved the bill."

His optimism may be well founded. Among the major religious groups to sign on to the bill after the improvements is the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which held a national meeting Feb. 4 in Washington where the church hierarchy announced its support.

In light of the changes, political observers feel that Wolf-Specter has a much better chance of being passed. Specter has said that he expects the Senate to consider the bill in the spring, while Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) said the House would vote on it by mid-summer. This does not mean, however, that everyone is satisfied with the changes.

Concerns remain about creating a hierarchy of human rights, placing religiously motivated attacks above other forms of tyranny. The over-emphasis on Christian persecution over that of other faiths also was not addressed by Wolf's changes.

On the other side, bill supporters are wondering if Wolf-Specter has been too watered down to remain effective. Bauer, one of the bill's most militant supporters, was quoted in Religion News Service as saying, "Would we have liked a stronger bill? Of course."

So where does all this leave church-state separationists? Many think serious concerns about deficiencies in this legislation remain. While there is broad consensus that religious persecution is important and merits attention from the U.S. government, real questions remain about whether this bill is the best way to achieve that end.
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Title Annotation:House of Representatives' and Senates' proposal of a bill to fight religious persecution overseas
Author:Benen, Steve
Publication:Church & State
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Previous Article:Is the religious right out to get Bill Clinton?
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