Bill gives U.S. means to fight persecution

Sunday, October 25, 1998

A unanimous Congress? Highly unlikely, if not impossible in these pre-election days of bitter partisanship and party-line votes.

But the brutal, systematic persecution of religious people and communities throughout the world has moved our leaders to speak with one voice. Earlier this month, the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act passed the Senate by a vote of 98 to 0 and the House by unanimous voice vote. The president is expected to sign the bill into law. (Editor's note: After a title change, the bill was enacted as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. President Clinton signed it on Oct. 27, 1998, as Public Law 105-292.)

The bill commits the United States to act against religious persecution wherever it occurs. An ambassador at large and an Office for International Religious Freedom will be established in the Department of State to work against oppression, and, when nations persist in violating religious freedom, the president will impose sanctions.

Agreement on the legislation didn't come quickly or easily. For many months, Congress argued about how best to address reports of horrific suffering by religious people and communities in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere. The debate centered on what, if any, sanctions the president should impose when nations practice a pattern of religious persecution. Some senators pushed for tough economic sanctions, while others were hesitant to tie the president's hands in ways that might hurt America's economic interests abroad — or threaten the welfare of the people we're trying to help.

Critics of the bill pointed out that sanctions are often ineffective or even counterproductive. Economic engagement is necessary, they argued, in order to encourage more democracy and freedom. Furthermore, quiet diplomacy is frequently more effective than public condemnation or sanctions as the best way to help those suffering oppression. Proponents of the bill answered that these strategies are insufficient; our foreign policy must be shaped by a firm commitment to fight religious persecution with sanctions that hurt.

The Senate bill does much to heighten the visibility of religious persecution, but it's a compromise between those who argue for tough sanctions and those who would avoid sanctions altogether. Under the act, the president isn't required to impose economic sanctions. He's given a wide choice of options once he determines that a nation practices a pattern of religious persecution. The possibilities range from public condemnation to withdrawal of foreign aid to loss of American contracts and loans. And the president can also waive sanctions if he decides that “the important national interest of the United States” requires a waiver.

The compromise doesn't satisfy everyone, but it has potential to advance the cause of religious freedom in a world where more than half of the population lives under governments that restrict or prohibit religious liberty. Just the possibility that America will do more to combat assaults on religious people gives hope to house Christians in China, Muslims in Kosovo, Buddhists in Tibet, Baha'is in Iran, and to many other religious people in many other places. For those suffering persecution, American action may mean the difference between survival and destruction — for themselves and for their entire community.

Religious freedom isn't an American idea. It's an inalienable, universal right. But commitment to full religious freedom for all should be one of our chief exports. If we can fill the world with blue jeans and soft drinks, surely we can do more to promote the fundamental principles and ideals that are truly at the heart of the American way of life.