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Religious Leaders Urge Clinton to Raise Freedom Issue in China

June 19, 1998
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President Clinton is seeking to bring a high profile to religious freedom issues before his trip to China.

“When in China, I will speak as clearly as I can about human rights and religious freedom,” Clinton told a gathering of religious leaders at the White House on Thursday.

“Our message is clear: We in the United States believe that all governments everywhere should ensure fundamental rights, including the right of people to worship when and where they choose,” Clinton said.

As Congress weighs legislation aimed at fighting religious persecution overseas, Clinton also urged lawmakers to provide him with new tools to address the issue, but to give him “as much flexibility as possible to advance the cause of religious freedom.”

“America is not strengthened in fighting for religious liberties or in fighting against religious persecution by laws that are so rigid that the president’s hands are tied,” Clinton said.

He was referring to legislation pending in Congress that would require the president to impose sanctions automatically against countries engaged in the persecution of religious minorities.

The House of Representatives passed the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act last month. Attention is now focused on a Senate bill that the White House and some advocates of religious freedom see as an improved approach.

Clinton’s comments came as he concluded a meeting at the White House on Thursday with three clerics who traveled to China in February at his request to help open a dialogue with Beijing on religion.

The delegation included Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York, an organization that promotes religious freedom and dialogue.

Schneier, along with the Rev. Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Newark, N.J., shared with Clinton their findings that the climate for religious freedom in China had improved over the last 20 years, but still lagged behind international standards.

In the meeting, Schneier underscored the need for China to recognize Judaism as an official religion.

China has said it has no reason to recognize Judaism because it has no Jews, but Schneier said that the issue has become more important now that Hong Kong’s population of some 2,500 Jews is part of China.

Schneier is planning to travel to China again next week — separately from the president, who departs June 25 for a weeklong trip — along with a delegation from Park East Synagogue in New York, Schneier’s synagogue, that will bring a Torah scroll to a restored synagogue in Shanghai.

The mayor of Shanghai agreed to declare the synagogue — which was used by Jewish refugees during World War II — a historic landmark when he met with the clerics earlier this year.

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