Religious Rights, Stock Market Eyed

Religious Rights, Stock Market Eyed

.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A new government commission seeking to foster religious freedom opened its first hearing Tuesday at odds with the Treasury Department over whether to stop abusive governments from raising money on U.S. stock markets.

The hearing focused immediately on the link between a Chinese government oil company, building a pipeline in Sudan, and that country's radical government, which is accused of killing 14 children and a teacher in a bombing raid on a Roman Catholic school last week.

The Sudanese government has said if its plane killed children, it was an accident of war because rebel fighters were massed near the school.

At the hearing, an exiled Sudanese Catholic bishop said the Feb. 8 bombing was intentional and accused the government of trying to kill off the country's Roman Catholic minority. "If you destroy the fruit, you will have no more trees tomorrow," Bishop Macram Max Gassis said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is to take up abuses of religion in Russia and China later in the year, has appealed to President Clinton to prohibit the Chinese company and others from using U.S. capital markets to finance the Sudanese pipeline.

The Treasury Department insists that existing sanctions against Sudan cannot apply to capital markets. The United States contends Sudan exports terrorism.

Despite Treasury's position, the commission has appointed a task force to monitor plans by China National Oil Co. to raise money through a listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

PetroChina is expected to proceed with an initial public offering in excess of $5 billion in the next several weeks, said Roger Robinson Jr., a former National Security Council director who is now chairman of the William J. Casey Institute of the Center for Security Policy.

Chinese investment in the 940-mile pipeline from Heglid in southern Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, completed in September, is part of the largest overseas venture of the China National Oil Co. The Chinese oil company also helped build a refinery in Sudan.

He said the commission needs to evaluate whether the Chinese offering can ensure that money raised in U.S. markets are not diverted to the oil company's project in Sudan.

The school bombing in central Sudan was associated with the government's 17-year civil war with southern rebels, which has led to an estimated 2 million deaths from fighting or war-induced famine.

The rebels seek autonomy for Christian and animist southern Sudanese from the government dominated by ethnically Arab Muslims.

Commission members have said they plan to meet with experts and market managers to explore "voluntary adoption of human rights and religious- freedom criteria" for entry into U.S. stock markets, Robinson said.

He said going after entry into U.S. markets by rights abusers may be more effective than sanctions, which tend to hurt U.S. exporters and investors.

The nine-member religious freedom commission appointed by the president and congressional leaders was set up to advise the State Department and the White House on protection of religious freedom around the world.

Organized under a 1998 law that arose partly out of rising congressional unease about alleged persecution of Christians abroad, it is headed by a rabbi and a law school dean and includes people of the Christian, Muslim and Baha'i faiths.

Under the law that created the panel, the State Department designated China, Iran, Iraq, Burma and Sudan as "countries of particular concern" for religious freedom. That designation subjects them to diplomatic and economic sanctions. The department also lists Serbia and the Taliban movement that rules most of Afghanistan as ``particularly severe violators of religious freedom.''

AP-NY-02-15-00 1754EST

©Copyright 2000, Associated Press

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