RELIGIOUS PRISONERS CONGRESSIONAL TASK FORCE (Senate - March 19, 1998)

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Mr. BROWNBACK. Mr. President, I take this opportunity to introduce to the Senate and to the United States the formation of the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force, which will advocate for religious prisoners suffering persecution from foreign governments.

This bicameral, bipartisan task force was founded by Representative Joe Pitts, from Pennsylvania, who has been the leading force on this, and myself. We are also joined by Senator Joe Lieberman, from Connecticut, and Representative Tony Hall, from Ohio, on this joint task force. I would also note at the very outset that many Members are active in this work and have been for a number of years, such Members as Frank Wolf, from Virginia, who for years has advocated for those who have no voice, who are prisoners of conscience in dirty cells and jails around the world; people like Senator Lugar in this body, who has done so quietly and effectively with many leaders of Government as have other leaders as well. And there are many ongoing efforts along with this task force we are announcing here today.

As leaders in a nation which ardently values religious freedom--indeed, our Nation was founded upon the principle of religious freedom--we take this opportunity to intervene at the highest levels for those whose greatest crime is to express a belief in the divine, in God. It is my personal conviction that what one does with one's own soul is the most fundamental of human rights. I believe this is a fundamental liberty with which people throughout the world are endowed, the inherent right to do this, to freely express their faith. Yet national governments routinely breach this right and wrongfully silence peaceful minority faith communities and jail their leaders.

The statistics are striking. Fully one-half of the world's religious believers are restrained by oppressive governments from freely expressing their religious convictions. One-third to one-half of the world's believers are forced to meet clandestinely in underground cell groups or home churches, such as occurs frequently in China and Iran and many other places around the world.

Religious persecution is waged internationally from the highest levels of government, particularly Communist and ultranationalist countries. One successful strategy is to intimidate and control believing communities by incarcerating respected religious leaders, bringing the full weight of a national government against key individuals. These prisoners suffer abuses including beatings, torture, extended incarceration and even death unless intervention is made. Such violations strike at the heart of the religious communities while blatantly breaching international treaties and fundamental human rights standards. We have the legal mandate for this action.

Through this task force, we will appeal to heads of state, both to obtain release of key religious prisoners and to help change antagonistic policies. Individual prisoners will be assigned to individual task force members through this advocacy adoption program.

When congressional Members petition Government leaders, the lives of religious prisoners change. Experienced human rights groups confirm this as well as some of our task force members such as Tony Hall and Joe Pitts, who confirm that such intervention improves prison conditions, stops torture and, most importantly, results in prisoner releases.

Ultimately, the joint effort of several Members can influence hostile national policies for the good. Moreover, task force members will engage in joint protests with members from the British Parliament who have implemented a similar prisoner adoption program, providing further weight to this advocacy.

As I speak to you today, thousands are sitting in cramped and dirty cells, for no other reason than that they peacefully expressed their religious beliefs. Most are nameless and lack advocates, yet they are the Sakharovs and the Solzhenitsyns of our day, and they deserve our help.

The national cases that we will advocate involve advocacy for embattled religious leaders in the Sudan, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Tibet and include persecuted Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Bahais. The following case profiles of incarcerated believers worldwide illustrate the extremities faced by these communities.

In China, one of the people we will initially be advocating for is Bishop Su. He is a 65-year-old Catholic bishop who has

already spent 20 years--20 years--in jails and work camps. His crime is that he believed in papal authority, which is prohibited by the Government, and refuses to join the state-authorized Catholic Church, which rejects the Vatican. Previously he was severely tortured but continues to refuse to recant his faith.

Also in China, Pastor Peter Xu, the Protestant leader of a 3- to 4-million member Christian movement, has been sentenced to 3 years in a forced labor camp for his peaceful but unofficial religious activities. His case highlights the plight of unregistered Christian groups which are forced to meet clandestinely to avoid arrest and harassment. Such house churches remain unregistered so that they can freely practice their faith without Government control and censorship. These underground movements constitute a majority of practicing Christians in China, and their leaders constantly face arrest and incarceration.

In Iran, the task force has targeted four Bahais leaders who have been sentenced to death for the simple reason of their religious associations. They are presently incarcerated and awaiting execution. The death sentence is no idle threat. Over 200 Bahais have been executed, including women and teenage girls. And this just since 1979.

In Pakistan, four Christians have been falsely charged with blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed. If convicted, they will be executed. Blasphemy charges are potent weapons of intimidation and control of minority Christian communities in Pakistan. Sometimes violence erupts against entire towns. For example, last year in Shantinagar, a Christian town--we have a picture of this that I would like to show the body--20,000 were rendered homeless after a mob looted and ravaged for 2 days as police stood by and watched.

This is a picture here that we have of a family in that community that was dislocated when the mob violence came and the police stood idly by.

In Tibet, the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet, a 6-year old boy, has `disappeared' and most likely is being held by the Chinese Government along with his family, in an attempt to control the Tibetan Buddhists. This is a deep assault on the Buddhist faith which honors this figure as second only to the Dalai Lama, who is now also outlawed. Tibetan Buddhists are suffering a systematic policy of eradication with monasteries being razed and monks and nuns incarcerated. One prison alone boasts over 100 monks and nuns who are presently jailed just for their faith. This does not include the unknown numbers incarcerated in the other six prisons.

I want to show some pictures to the body of people who have been incarcerated, penalized, and attacked by governments for simply practicing their faith. We remember those people pictured in various places throughout the world that you can see, pictures of individuals who are being persecuted for their faith.

This is another picture of people who are practicing their faith clandestinely at a place in the world where they cannot practice their faith in the open.

The gentleman's picture over here to the far right is also a true case of an individual blindfolded and being attacked for his own faith. Even though he is blindfolded and you cannot see his eyes, you can sense in his face that here is a man of faith who knows what he is facing, knowing that death is potential, and still standing for his faith, for that simple right to do with his own soul what he sees fit. Isn't it right for us to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves? Isn't it up to this body and many others to say that this is a fundamental human right, that this man should have an advocate, that we should be standing with him as he stands there for the simple reason of his own faith, whatever that faith might be? This is a foundational human right. It is time we stood up, stepped forward and spoke out around the world to the world's governments where half of the people live who cannot practice their faith freely. This is the time for us to do that. I hate to think that we will not step up or we will not be up to the cause of the moment, people such as this gentleman, who stands and faces so much more.

Mr. President, in conclusion, we hope that the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force, along with many other efforts, will be a voice for religious freedom internationally. Our goal is the release of prisoners who have taken a stand for religious liberty, those who have paid the high price of loss of freedom and threat to life and even death. They deserve our advocacy for this most personal of human rights, this most important of human rights, to freely express a belief in God.

With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor.

I note the absence of a quorum.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

The legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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Mr. GORTON. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.


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