Since the 1970s, the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy has stirred vigorous debate in this country. During the 1990's, the USCCB worked to make religious liberty an important part of this debate. There is a growing awareness and conviction that religious liberty is a core American value that should help shape U.S. foreign policy. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, even greater vigilance is needed to ensure that human rights and religious liberty do not take a reduced role 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 could better promote respect for religious liberty abroad.
- In October 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was enacted. 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 to monitor religious freedom violations and make 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. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces are current members. Former members include Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre.
The Significance of Religious Freedom. The concern for religious liberty is not a new one for the USCCB. From the Soviet bloc and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s to China, Sudan and Iraq today, the Bishops have worked to promote respect for religious liberty and against religious persecution, which Pope John Paul II has called “an 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.” (Pope John Paul II, address to Diplomats, 1996) Work for religious freedom is part of our broader efforts to ensure that promotion of human rights is a central concern of U.S. policy, and 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, the covenants on race, and civil and political rights and the US legislation governing trafficking. 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 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. The U.S. Congress has extended permanent NTR to China. 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 Catholic and Protestant 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 been a shifting reality, especially 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. The arrests last March and lengthy sentences given to 75 non-violent dissidents, more than half of whom are Catholic activists of the Varela Project, has further damaged relations between the Church and the state and demonstrated a deterioration in human rights.
Iraq: Iraq is at a critical juncture as it prepares for self governance by June 30, 2004. A “transitional law” to govern Iraq until a constitution is developed is scheduled to be completed by February 28, 2004. One of the most contentious issues is the legal status of Islam and minority religious groups. The historical role of Islam deserves respect, but it must be done in a way that ensures full religious freedom and human rights for minorities. The U.S. government must make full religious freedom for all in Iraq a priority.
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. The government’s national commission on interreligious dialogue is virtually defunct. In the absence of viable avenues for constructive dialogue, suspicions and fears about the ultimate religious and political goals of the different religious groups is leading to increased tensions and sporadic violence.
Pakistan: Recent years have seen the massacres of Christian worshipers and attacks on Christian centers. Official discrimination against non-Muslim minorities has lessened, but has not been eliminated. The state has 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.
Sudan: At the heart of Sudan’s civil war is the struggle for religious liberty, ethnic ‘African’ identity, and the control of the country’s natural resources. Despite recent progress in the peace process, Christians, moderate Muslims, and other minority groups continue to suffer from a wide range of human rights abuses including arbitrary arrest, slavery, and discrimination.
Vietnam: While extensive restrictions on religious freedom still exist, the recent years have seen some 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. 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 apparently may lead to the lessening of some restrictions on religious life.
Related USCCB statements on human rights and religious freedom can be found at: (www.usccb.org/sdwp/international)
For further information: Walt Grazer 202-541-3160 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax); firstname.lastname@example.org