News Analysis: Religious Persecution Bill Gains Momentum in Congress

Legislation aimed at fighting religious persecution abroad has a fighting chance in Congress now that religious leaders, lawmakers and human rights activists have worked out some of the wrinkles.

From the beginning, proponents of the cause have sought input from Jewish leaders, seeking to model their campaign after the Jewish community’s successful efforts to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s.

While fully supporting the concept of combating religious persecution, most Jewish activists have been conflicted about the proposed legislation, known as the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act.

The bill would bar all but humanitarian aid to countries engaged in the persecution of religious minorities. It would also make it easier for those fleeing religious persecution to be granted asylum, and it would ban exports of equipment that could be used as instruments of torture by oppressive governments.

Fears have centered on whether the legislation would do more harm than good and whether it would elevate the cause of religious persecution over other human rights concerns.

Recent changes have made the bill more palatable to Jewish groups, though most activists say some additional improvements may be needed before they can get behind it.

So far, only the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, have endorsed the bill.

Over the course of the past year, the fight against worldwide religious persecution has emerged as a leading political cause.

At a summit meeting here last week, proponents of the campaign –a vocal coalition of religious groups ranging from the Christian Coalition to the International Campaign for Tibet — sought to build new momentum to pass the legislation.

Congressional leaders, for their part, declared the bill a high priority and say it could become law as early as this summer in spite of opposition from the Clinton administration.

After several months in which the campaign has stagnated, supporters were upbeat, noting that what has been seen as a crusade led mainly by Protestant evangelicals and religious conservatives now includes support from influential Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist and human rights groups.

“I believe the groundswell is increasing geometrically,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who, along with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in the House, authored the act.

The bill originally sought to establish a new office within the White House to monitor the treatment of religious minorities around the world. But the new version, crafted to satisfy critics, moves that office to the State Department and gives the president authority to waive sanctions in certain instances.

Proponents hope the Wolf-Specter legislation can provide a shot in the arm for their cause similar to what the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment did for the Soviet Jewry movement. That legislation linked U.S. trade policy to a country’s emigration practices.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, said the original legislation was problematic, but he agreed to support it after the changes related to the State Department and presidential waivers were made.

“We cannot turn our back against innocent people whose sole `crime’ is the expression of their deepest religious beliefs,” Saperstein wrote in a recent letter to Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

Citing the experience of Jewish refugees turned away from the United States during the Holocaust, Cheryl Halpern, national chairwoman of the National Jewish Coalition, said, “To the extent that `Never again’ is” the Jewish “community’s rallying cry, then never again should American shores be closed to those fleeing religious persecution.”

The campaign has also found an ally in one of the key symbols in the movement to free Soviet Jewry — former Russian dissident Natan Sharansky, now Israel’s minister of industry and trade.

In a letter to supporters of the campaign, Sharansky said the growing American movement to combat worldwide religious persecution “reflects what is best and noblest about America.”

“When the West stood up for its most basic values and spoke up for persecuted Soviet Jewish communities, Soviet chains around churches and political dissidents also began to shatter,” he wrote.

Jewish activists who have been working on the issue say that, with the changes, the Wolf-Specter legislation is clearly moving in the right direction. Most, however, say they are either withholding judgment until they have more time to study the reworked version or until additional modifications are made.

Some activists continue to raise questions about the efficacy of the proposed sanctions and how they would work in conjunction with existing human rights law.

Some human rights activists, meanwhile, remain opposed to the idea of focusing only on religious persecution — and not on human rights abuses more broadly.

The Clinton administration continues to oppose the bill, expressing many of the same reservations.

Testifying before the House International Relations Committee last year, John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, said that although the administration “strongly supports the objectives of eliminating religious persecution,” the Wolf-Specter legislation threatens to do more harm than good in addressing religious freedom issues.

“We fear reprisals by repressive governments against victims, as well as an end to any dialogue on religious freedom, in retaliation for the sanctions,” Shattuck said, adding that it might hurt “vital bilateral relations with key allies and regional powers.”

For its part, the administration has been addressing the issue through an advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, established in 1996 to recommend policy actions to President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Last month, the committee released a 35-page interim report stating that the followers of all the world’s major religions — Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is — all suffer detention, torture and death.

The report urged the president to give “greater weight and enhanced importance” to religious freedom in foreign policy decision-making.

To that end, Albright has announced the establishment of a new senior-level post in the State Department’s human rights bureau to coordinate U.S. foreign policy with efforts to promote religious freedom abroad.

In a related effort, three prominent American religious leaders arrived in Beijing this week for a three-week tour of China to examine the climate for religious freedom there.

Supporters of the campaign against religious persecution have identified China as a key trouble spot, criticizing Beijing for what they describe as widespread persecution of Christians and Tibetan Buddhists.

Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin agreed to the mission during their summit meeting in October. The delegation, which includes Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, is looking at the trip as a vital chance to start a dialogue with China.

“We’re not looking to this mission as a one-time event,” Schneier said before departing the United States. “It’s the beginning of a process.”

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