Statement of Representative Christopher H. Smith Chairman, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights June 16, 1998

Victims of Religious Persecution Around the World

Today's hearing of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights is for the purpose of taking the testimony of five witnesses to religious persecution. These are not government officials or even analysts from non-governmental organizations. Rather, they are people who have witnessed religious persecution first-hand --- who have seen close friends or relatives imprisoned, tortured, even executed for their faith, or who have suffered such horrors themselves.

This is the latest in a series of Subcommittee hearings focusing in whole or in part on persecution of religious believers. Other hearings have focused on worldwide anti-Semitism, on the persecution of Christians around the world, on the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, on the enslavement of black Christians in Sudan, and on the use of torture against religious believers and other prisoners of conscience.

We have heard from Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who displayed the instruments of torture used against him by his Chinese communist jailers; from Hasan Nuhanovic, a Muslim who unsuccessfully begged United Nations peacekeepers not to turn his mother, father, and brother over to the murderous Bosnian Serb militia; from a Russian Jewish member of parliament who observed that "anti-Semitism was the first industry to be privatized" in post-Soviet Russia; from Karen [Kah-RENN] refugees whose villages in Thailand were burned by the Burmese military dictatorship, which openly used their Christian religion as an excuse to conduct cross-border raids against them; and from Christians and Buddhists subjected to imprisonment and torture by the Communist governments of China and Vietnam. Today's witnesses include a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Bahai, all with compelling and recent evidence that religious persecution is not a problem that will go away if we just pretend it is not there.

In their prepared testimony, several of today's witnesses make clear that the United States should continue to press for an end to religious persecution abroad. This is important, because the Clinton Administration and some business people who oppose the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act have suggested that by publicly demanding an end to the mistreatment of these people, we are more likely to hurt them than help them. Personally, I believe it may be true in the short run that a totalitarian dictatorship used to being coddled by the United States government will react with anger when we suddenly insist that they behave in a civilized fashion. This is true whether the issue is religious persecution, nuclear proliferation, or anything else. In the long run, however, these governments will act in their own self-interest. If we send a strong and consistent message that the economic and other benefits of a close relationship with the United States can be expected to flow to a government if and only if that government treats its own people decently, we are likely to save lives and promote freedom in the long run. This message has already been sent by the overwhelming 375 to 41 House vote in favor of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act. I hope that Senate passage and a Presidential signature will follow soon.

Whatever we do to other governments that persecute religious believers, it is also important that the United States put its own house in order. One way we can do this is to monitor and improve our treatment of refugees, with special reference to religious refugees. Unfortunately, in recent years the United States commitment to refugees --- both the amount we spend on protection overseas, and the number of refugees we admit to the United States --- has declined sharply. In the last four years, our State Department has asked for and gotten a raise for itself every single year. Yet the only major account in which the Department has not asked for an increase is the refugee account. The Administration's fiscal year 1999 budget request for refugees is $63 million lower than the amount we spent in fiscal year 1995. The number of refugees admitted to the United States has gone down from 130,000 to 75,000 in only four years. These declining resettlement rates encourage first-asylum countries to forcibly repatriate refugees to countries where they face serious danger. For instance, in recent years we have seen Tibetan Buddhists forced back from Nepal into the hands of the Chinese Communists, and Iranian Christians and Bahais forced back to Iran from Turkey. We need to reverse that trend and restore the American tradition of safe haven for the oppressed. In the words of President Ronald Reagan, the United States can and must be a shining city on a hill.

Finally, I want to address those critics who suggest that by paying special attention to religious persecution, we somehow diminish the importance of those who have suffered persecution for other reason. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is no accident that those in Congress who have been strongest in their support of persecuted believers have also stood up for the rights of those who have suffered for their race, nationality, or political opinions. I do want to suggest, though, that religious persecution is deserving of special attention because totalitarian governments often come down harder on religious believers than anyone else. This is because nothing threatens such regimes more than faith. In the modern world --- in which the rhetoric of cultural relativism and moral equivalence is so often used to make the difference between totalitarianism and freedom seem like just a matter of opinion --- the strongest foundation for the absolute and indivisible nature of human rights is the belief that these rights are not bestowed by governments or international organizations, but by God. And people who are secure in their relationship with God do not intimidate easily.

So we must remind ourselves, and then we must remind our government, that human rights policy is not just a subset of trade policy, and refugee protection is not just an inconvenient branch of immigration policy. The protection of refugees, the fight for human rights around the world, are about recognizing that good and evil really exist in the world. They are also about recognizing that we are all brothers and sisters. If we recognize these truths, we can build a coalition to preserve and strengthen United States policies designed to protect our witnesses today --- and to protect all others who are persecuted because of their religion, race, nationality, or political beliefs --- and to restore these policies to the place they deserve as a top priority in American foreign policy.

©Copyright 1998, Congressional Testimony

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