Bahai News - Senate hopes to find way to fight religious persecution abroad Nation & World : Wednesday, September 23, 1998

Senate hopes to find way to fight religious persecution abroad

by Norman Kempster
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON - Senate leaders are promising action before Congress ends this fall on long-stalled legislation intended to combat religious persecution abroad.

Almost all sides in the emotional debate agree that thousands of people around the globe face starvation, murder, rape, kidnapping, imprisonment, forced conversion, slavery and other atrocities because of their religious beliefs.

However, there is almost no agreement on what Washington can, or should, do about the problem. Proposals to impose economic sanctions have generated strong opposition from the business community and have drawn objections from the administration, which calls such sanctions a blunt instrument that can interfere with other foreign-policy objectives. There is little consensus about other steps that could be used to punish persecutors.

"The freedom to proclaim a religious identity and to practice (it) is an inalienable right of all people," White House national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger wrote recently. "When denied, it can sow generations of hatreds - hatreds later harvested in violence, unrest and war."

However, Berger was arguing against a bill that would impose economic and political sanctions on nations implicated in religious persecution, either directly through government action or indirectly by allowing mobs to get away with atrocities against members of competing religions.

Berger and other Clinton administration officials - backed by much of the business community and even some church groups - contended that the measure would actually make matters worse by provoking a backlash against the religious groups the bill is intended to protect.

The House approved the bill, 375-41, but the legislation has bogged down in the Senate. The House bill - with its heavy emphasis on economic sanctions - is thought to have no chance in the Senate, and a substitute sponsored by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., is stalled in the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., vows that he will not allow the committee to bury the legislation and says he intends to bring it up soon by employing a seldom-used procedure allowing the majority leader to bypass committees.

According to reports compiled by the State Department, religious groups and some secular human-rights organizations, persecution is a growing scourge.

"Followers of all of the world's major religions - Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Bahais and others - are currently discriminated against, harassed, detained, tortured and killed," reported the State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Discrimination Abroad earlier this year.

Although martyrs come in all faiths, Christians are the most frequent victims, according to numerous nongovernmental assessments. Many Christians live as minorities in Third World countries where another religion is dominant.

Fundamentalist groups, led by the Christian Coalition, have mounted a campaign to overcome public apathy and make Americans more sensitive to the plight of Christians persecuted around the world.

The bill passed by the House closely tracked the coalition's objectives, focusing on persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Bahai. It targeted China, Vietnam, Sudan, Iran, Cuba, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, North Korea, Indonesia, Egypt and Laos for immediate attention by a newly created White House office of religious liberty.

©Copyright 1998, The Seattle Times Company
Original Story

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