Since the 1970s, there has been a vigorous and welcome debate in this country over the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Only relatively recently, however, has religious liberty become an important part of this wider human rights debate. There is growing awareness that religious freedom has too often been overlooked, and a growing conviction that core American values must help shape the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Significant developments include:
- In May 1999, the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad (which included two Catholic Bishops) issued its important Final Report on how the United States can better promote respect for religious liberty abroad.
- In Fall 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was approved. IRFA, which the USCC supported, makes the promotion of religious freedom an explicit U.S. foreign policy goal. The law provides a flexible menu of policy option for responding to the most serious violations, and better integrates religious liberty concerns into U.S. foreign policy by creating a new office for religious freedom, providing for improved training and monitoring, and requiring new annual reports. The law covers all religious freedom violations in all countries, without preference.
- IRFA also creates a new nine-member Independent Commission on Religious Freedom Abroad, which will monitor religious freedom violations and make policy recommendations to the Administration and Congress. This commission, which began its work in June 1999, includes Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark.
The Significance of Religious Freedom. While there is new public attention to religious liberty, this is not a new issue for the U.S. Catholic Bishops. From the Soviet bloc and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s to China, Sudan and Russia today, the Bishops have worked against religious persecution and discrimination, which Pope John Paul II has called "intolerable and unjustifiable violation[s]..of the most fundamental human freedom, that of practicing one's faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living."
The USCC's work on religious liberty is part of our broader effort to ensure that promotion of human rights is a central concern of U.S. policy, and that U.S. aid and trade are linked to a country's human rights performance.
Human Rights Conventions. The USCC supported U.S. ratification of the torture and genocide conventions; and the covenants on race, and civil and political rights; and supports ratification of the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. U.S. participation in these and other human rights instruments is critical for the strengthening of international norms and adding credibility to its own efforts to promote greater respect for religious liberty and other basic human rights.
Specific Cases. Dozens of countries violate religious freedom, often as part of a general disrespect for human rights. The USCC has focused, among others, on the following:
China. The USCC has opposed the annual extension of Normal Trade Relations (NTR), (formerly Most Favored Nation Trade Status) to China due to serious violations of religious freedom and other human rights abuses. Of particular concern is the persecution of religious groups, such as the unregistered Protestant and Catholic churches, and the intrusive interference by the state in the internal life of the "open" or recognized churches. The persecution and control of Tibetan Buddhism is especially shameful and well known.
Cuba. Freedom to fully practice one's beliefs has increased considerably in recent years, notably since the January 1998 papal visit, but the state still maintains excessive control over almost every aspect of daily life. The early years of outright persecution, expulsion of clergy, and confiscation of religious properties are passed, but the Church is still restricted in receiving pastoral workers from abroad or in gaining access to communications media, and is still prevented from conducting its own schools.
Russia. A 1997 law on religion discriminates against minority religions and potentially subjects them to arbitrary actions by officials, especially at the local level. Implementation of the law has been mixed. Some of the worst fears have not come to pass, but the Catholic Church and other minority religions continue to face problems obtaining legal recognition for some of their activities.
Sudan. Years of civil conflict in Sudan have been greatly exacerbated by the efforts of the Khartoum government to impose an extreme interpretation of Islamic law on the country. Christians, moderate Muslims, and other minority groups have suffered terribly from indiscriminate bombing, starvation, slavery, and other human rights abuses. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions have been displaced. In areas under government control, minority religions face numerous restrictions; arrests and torture of those considered dissidents are common.
USCC statements on human rights (11/98); religious freedom legislation (2/98; 6/98; 9/98); China (6/99), Sudan (6/99), Russia (9/97; 5/99), Cuba (5/98; 6/98; 12/98), Pakistan (12/98)
India (2/99), (www.usccb.org/sdwp).
U.S. Department of State, Final Report, Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad (May 1999) (www.state.gove).
More Information: 202-541-3199 (ph), 202-541-3339 (fax); www.usccb.org/sdwp/international.