Since the 1970s, the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy has stirred vigorous debate in this country. During the 1990's, a concern for religious liberty become an important part of this debate. There is growing awareness that religious freedom is too often been overlooked, and a growing conviction that core American values, including its historical respect for religious liberty, must help shape the U.S. foreign policy agenda. After 9/11, greater vigilance is needed to ensure that religious liberty does not take a back seat in U.S. foreign policy. 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 October 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was enacted, with strong USCCB participation and support, IRFA, which the USCCB supported, makes the promotion of religious freedom an explicit U.S. foreign policy goal. The law provides a flexible menu of policy options 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 within the State Department, providing for improved training and monitoring, and requiring new annual reports by the State Department. The law covers all religious freedom violations in all countries, without preference.
- IRFA also created a new nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that monitors religious freedom violations and makes recommendations to the Administration and Congress. This commission began its work in June 1999 and issues its own annual report on the status of religious liberty. Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, NY is a member of our International Policy Committee and on the Commission.
The Significance of Religious Freedom. While there is increasing attention to religious liberty, this is not a new issue for the USCCB. From the Soviet bloc and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s to China and Sudan 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 USCCB's efforts are part of our broader initiative to ensure that promotion of human rights is a central concern of U.S. policy that links U.S. aid and trade to a country's human rights performance.
Human Rights Conventions. The USCCB supported U.S. ratification of the torture and genocide conventions and the covenants on race, and civil and political rights. The USCCB also urges the 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 rights.
Specific Cases. Dozens of countries violate religious freedom, often as part of a general disrespect for human rights. The USCCB has focused, among others, on the following:
China. The USCCB 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. Regrettably, the U.S. Congress extended permanent NTR to China two years ago. The USCCB continues to monitor and press for greater religious liberty in China. 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 past, 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.
Pakistan. Discrimination against non-Muslim minorities has lessened in recent years, and the state has just ended the separate electorate system whereby Christians could vote only for Christians and Muslims could vote only for Muslims, a 20-year system the Bishops called religious apartheid. Islamic extremists, however, continue to pose a serious danger, as witnessed by the October 28, 2001 massacre of Christian worshipers at a Catholic church in Bahawalpur. Muslim fundamentalists had issued threats against Christians if the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan.
Russia. A 1997 law requiring all religions and religious groups to register continues to cause problems for many, including discrimination against minority religions and subjects them to arbitrary actions, particularly at local levels. While some of the worst fears have not materialized, the Catholic church continues to face some difficulties.
Sudan. Sudan's civil war is greatly exacerbated by the Khartoum government's efforts to impose an extreme interpretation of Islamic law on the country. Christians, moderate Muslims, and other minority groups continue to suffer from indiscriminate bombing, starvation, slavery, arrests, torture, and other human rights abuses. Over 18 years, some two million have been killed and twice that number displaced.
Nigeria. Religious conflict increased after the transfer of power from a military to a civilian government, a situation worsened by the imposition of shari'a law in Muslim-dominated northern states. While Nigeria boasts of a strong national committee to promote inter-religious dialogue, the strict application of Islamic law and its imposition on non-Muslims (Christians and animists), risks further ethnic, political, economic and other hostilities as witnessed in recent violent clashes in Kano and Kaduna.
Vietnam. While extensive restrictions on religious freedom still exist, the last two years have seen considerable improvement, especially in relations between the Catholic Church and the government. Long delays before allowing candidates for the priesthood and religious life to enter seminaries and novitiates continue to be almost routine. Although the state still insists on maintaining excessive controls over all religious practice, its need for ever greater contact and trade with the rest of the world has apparently led to the lessening of some restrictions on religious life.
Related USCC statements on human rights and religios freedom can be found at: www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/libertyind.shtml
U.S. Department of State, Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (September,2001) (www.state.gov)
Commission on International Religious Freedom, Report on U.S. Policy (May 2001) (www.uscirf.gov)
For Further Information
Walt Grazer 202-541-3199 (ph), email@example.com