WASHINGTON (June 25, 1998) -- On-going congressional efforts to make international religious liberty a top foreign policy priority are welcome, according to a U.S. Catholic Conference official, who offered "general support" for pending Senate legislation.
Gerard F. Powers, Director of the USCC's Office of International Justice and Peace, tempered his support for the International Religious Freedom Act (S. 1868), however, by raising several concerns with the legislation and stating a willingness to work with its sponsors to strengthen the bill.
"This is not ... a new issue for the U.S. Catholic bishops," Powers said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "From religious persecution in the Soviet bloc and Latin America during the Cold War to China and Sudan today, we have worked -- sometimes quietly, at other times more publicly -- on behalf of those denied their fundamental human right to religious liberty. ... We welcome new allies in this vital work, as well as the promise of congressional action to advance religious liberty."
Powers noted the USCC's support for the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (HR 2431), which passed the House last month on a 375-41 vote, and said the House and Senate bills share a number of common features supported by the USCC:
- linking U.S. aid and foreign policy generally to other states' performance on religious
- liberty, which the U.S. bishops have long urged for the full range of fundamental human rights.
- covering religious persecution against all believers of all faiths in all countries.
- mandating official U.S. responses to serious violations of religious liberty, while allowing some flexibility of response. The House bill does so through its waiver provisions, the Senate bill through its menu of options and waiver provisions.
- implementing some of the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee's recommendations regarding improved training, incentives, reporting, and other matters.
- relying primarily on aid cut-offs rather than significant trade sanctions or embargos to address religious liberty violations.
- exempting most humanitarian and development aid in order to avoid indirect harm to vulnerable populations which the bill seeks to help.
Powers also outlined several concerns with the current version of the Senate bill and offered to work with its sponsors to strengthen its provisions.
First, regarding what violations of religious freedom should be covered, Powers said, "As a matter of principle, we agree with the sponsors of the Senate bill that all violations of religious liberty are serious matters that the U.S. government should seek to address .... But as a matter of practical judgment, we take seriously the argument that congressional action in this area should focus primarily on the most serious cases of persecution, as the House bill does."
Powers also suggested strengthening provisions regarding the policy options from which the President must choose in responding to religious persecution. The bill gives the President complete discretion to choose one of a variety of options. Powers urged that some of the options be strengthened and consolidated because "the most severe cases of persecution merit stronger responses."
Some provisions regarding waivers are also of concern, according to Powers. While supportive of waivers deemed necessary for national security purposes or in cases when the President determines that sanctions would harm innocents, he expressed concern about additional waivers in cases where the President determines that "substantial steps" are being taken to end persecution.
Finally, Powers urged that the humanitarian exemptions in the bill be clarified so as to ensure that they include "bilateral aid programs that, while not technically humanitarian, nevertheless have a significant humanitarian impact," as well as multilateral aid that serves the poor and vulnerable.
"While we welcome the higher profile and priority now being given religious liberty, we have been repeatedly disappointed that both the Congress and the Executive, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, have generally placed economic and political interests ahead of religious liberty and human rights," Powers said in conclusion. "Whether it is China or Indonesia, Sudan, Pakistan, Bosnia or Russia, religious liberty should be a primary concern of U.S. foreign policy."