WASHINGTON (September 12, 1997) -- Protecting religious liberty and human rights abroad should be a priority of U.S. foreign policy, two United States Catholic Conference officials told Members of Congress this week, welcoming "new allies in this work and new congressional action."
A letter today from Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark offered his general support for legislation, known as the "Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, currently being considered in Congress.
"The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act is welcome because it links U.S. aid and trade policies to a country's performance on religious liberty, a linkage that the U.S. bishops have long urged for the range of fundamental human rights," said Archbishop McCarrick, who chairs the USCC's International Policy Committee. "The bill would also take important steps in improving reporting on religious liberty by the State Department and strengthen training of foreign service and immigration officers, which, given our experience in this area, seems well justified. Finally, the bill provides for the restoration of certain vital procedural safeguards [for asylum seekers] for those persecuted on account of their religion, safeguards that we urge be restored for those claiming persecution on the grounds of race, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
Archbishop McCarrick's letter to members of the House International Relations Committee buttresses testimony before the same committee offered earlier this week by Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, director of USCC's Office of International Justice and Peace. Father Christiansen told the committee that "while there is new public attention to religious liberty, this is not a new issue for the U.S. Catholic bishops."
He expressed his appreciation for the heightened attention being given to the issue and likewise welcomed the introduction of the legislation by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA).
"For us, religious persecution has a human face," Father Christiansen said. "We know priests and bishops in China who have spent years in prison. We have attended funerals for missionaries and bishops in Central America who have preached the gospel at their peril. We have sought to support church leaders in Burundi who have been attacked because of their efforts at reconciliation. We have met with Muslim, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia whose family members were killed and churches, mosques, and homes destroyed simply because of their religion. ... We have prayed and worked for greater religious freedom for all for decades."
While offering their general support for the legislation, both Archbishop McCarrick and Father Christiansen suggested several ways in which the bill could be strengthen:
- Procedural safeguards for asylum seekers. Persons seeking asylum in the United States due to persecution on the grounds of race, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, as outlined in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, should enjoy the same procedural safeguards as those claiming religious persecution. Many of the safeguards were removed in last year's immigration reform law over the vocal protests of the Bishops.
- Include all persecuted religious groups. The bill draws particular attention to the plight of Christians, Iranian Baha'is and Tibetan Buddhists, but should not be limited to these, according to Father Christiansen. "The world's persecutors must be clear that the United States will not tolerate persecution of Muslims, Hindus and Jews any more than it does persecuted Christians or Buddhists. A universal concern for persecuted religious believers is not only good policy, it is good theology."
- Economic sanctions. Sanctions should be imposed sparingly and with restraint. They should be targeted in such a way as to avoid "the moral problem of punishing the poor, those suffering from religious persecution, and opposition groups for the sins of their government."
"Whether it is China or the Middle East; Indonesia, Sudan, Russia or Bosnia-Herzegovina, religious liberty should be a primary concern of United States foreign policy," Archbishop McCarrick said. "That is why we support this effort and will continue to work to strengthen and refine particular provisions of this bill to ensure that it will be an effective tool for raising the curtain on and combating a too-often-ignored problem, and improving the situation of the millions who are suffering simply because of their religious beliefs,: he concluded.