Religious Persecution Legislation Hailed by Jews and Religious Right

Finding rare common ground, Jewish groups and members of the religious right are hailing the passage of legislation aimed at punishing countries guilty of religious persecution.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act on May 14 by a vote of 375 to 41.

The bill stands little chance of being adopted in the Senate, which has begun considering its own version of the legislation.

Religious conservatives provided the initial impetus for the bill and lobbied heavily to see it through. But the coalition of support broadened in recent months to include several Jewish and mainstream Christian groups.

The Anti-Defamation League praised the House’s action, saying it “sends a message around the world that America will not conduct business as usual with regimes that oppress individuals on the basis of their faith.”

Although the bill passed by a lopsided vote, the numbers belied ambivalence among some lawmakers about a measure that some say will backfire against religious minorities, hamstring U.S. foreign policy and create a hierarchy of human rights abuses.

The vote was seen at least in part as an attempt to shore up support with the Christian Coalition and other religious conservatives who have complained that Republican leaders had failed to deliver on their promises to act on the legislative agenda of the religious conservatives..

The legislation, approved by the House and sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), would bar all but humanitarian aid to countries engaged in the persecution of religious minorities, prohibit exports of equipment that could be used as instruments of torture by oppressive governments and make it easier for those fleeing religious persecution to be granted asylum.

The bill’s sponsors say most of the abuses are occurring within militant Islamic countries and the few remaining Communist nations. They have cited Sudan, China, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria and Vietnam as some of the worst offenders of religious freedom.

The Senate bill, considered less stringent, would allow the administration to tailor its response to each situation rather than compelling the president to apply the comprehensive sanctions called for in the Wolf-Specter bill.

But the Senate measure also would rely on a broader definition of religious persecution, prompting concerns among some Jewish activists about its possible implications for Israel.

Because of this broader definition, some activists say certain Israeli practices toward Palestinians — such as detentions, interrogations, curfews and closures — could come under scrutiny, even though religious, not political, actions are the target of the proposed legislation.

Jewish groups are withholding judgment on the Senate bill for now.

The Clinton administration, for its part, has threatened to veto the Wolf- Specter bill, saying it would interfere with diplomacy and create a backlash against some religious minorities overseas.

Administration officials have also criticized the Senate version as counterproductive, although they have stopped short of a veto threat.

The sanctions called for in both bills would have little direct impact on many governments engaged in abuses, but “run the risk of strengthening the hand of those governments and extremists who seek to incite religious intolerance,” John Shattuck, an assistant secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

He added, however, the administration was willing to work with lawmakers in crafting a bill targeted at the problem.

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