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Senate Passes Bill to Protect Religious Minorities Overseas

October 15, 1998
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The long-awaited passage of legislation aimed at stemming the scourge of religious persecution abroad came as a welcome development to American Jews, a community that knows all too well about the suppression of religious rights under oppressive foreign regimes.

The Senate on Oct. 9 voted 98-0 to approve a bill which directs the White House to take action against countries that engage in a pattern of religious persecution. It allows the president to choose from a list of options – – ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanctions — to use against offending countries.

But it also allows the president to waive sanctions if a country’s record improves or if U.S. officials determine that a waiver is in the national security interests of the United States.

The House, which passed a more stringent version of the legislation earlier this year, passed the Senate measure by a unanimous voice vote on Saturday.

President Clinton, after warning lawmakers against passing legislation that would tie his hands in conducting foreign policy, indicated he will sign the bill into law.

“The bill advances the cause of religious freedom while giving the president the flexibility he needs and without undermining relations with important countries around the world,” said Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economic affairs.

The final version of the International Religious Freedom Act, sponsored by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), reflected a compromise reached between religious groups and business interests who had feared that punitive actions by the U.S. government would alienate valuable economic partners and hurt U.S. companies abroad.

The Senate’s action marked the last hurdle in a legislative effort that began as an attempt by evangelical Christian groups to mimic the Jewish community’s successful efforts in freeing Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Most Jewish groups endorsed the idea from the outset, but came to support the religious freedom legislation only after painstaking negotiations were held over the course of a year and a half to assure that it would not hamstring U.S. foreign policy or exacerbate the situation in various countries where abuses are occurring.

“Just as the other communities helped us rescue hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews in the 1980s, so, too, must we act to ensure that all religious groups around the world have the right to practice their faith,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Indeed, Jewish activists said it was the Jewish community’s experience in working to push through Congress legislation to help free Soviet Jews that helped guide and inform the process of drafting the bill.

Stacy Burdett, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office, called the bill a “good piece of human rights legislation,” adding that Jewish groups were a leading voice in calling for the bill “to be more universal and not focus on any one group.”

“We hope it will be a long-term approach to what is unfortunately a long-term problem,” she said.

The American Jewish Committee and the National Jewish Coalition were also among Jewish groups that took a prominent role in pressing the issue. An array of religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Coalition, lobbied for passage of the legislation as well.

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, Vietnam, Algeria and Vietnam as some of the worst offenders of religious freedom.

Somewhere, “right now, a man or woman languishes in prison, some on death row, because he or she did nothing more than choose faith in God,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew and a key supporter of the bill, said from the Senate floor.

“It is a reminder to the executive branch of the American government, both now and in the future, that as it encourages human rights all over the world, it must consider freedom of religion.”

Under the bill, the State Department would be required to actively investigate charges of religious oppression and report to Congress annually.

The bill sets up an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, whose head would have the rank of ambassador. It also sets up a four-year commission on religious freedom whose nine members would be appointed by Congress and the president.

Sanctions available to the president under the bill include public condemnation, cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges, withdrawal, limitation or suspension of some forms of U.S. aid, cancellation of state visits, and a prohibition on new U.S. government contracts with that foreign government for goods and services.

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