Promoting religious liberty abroad has recently become an increasingly central goal of the American public, the Congress and the Administration. There is growing awareness that this vital human rights issue has too often been overlooked, and a growing conviction that core American values -- including respect for religious liberty -- must play proper roles in shaping the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Significant developments include:
- issuance of the July, 1997 State Department report focusing on persecution of Christians;
- formation of the State Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, on which two U.S. Catholic Bishops serve, and the issuance of its January, 1997 interim report; a final report is expected later this year;
- passage of country-specific legislation providing for U.S. aid cut-offs and other sanctions triggered either wholly or in part by violations of religious liberty;
- introduction of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (Wolf-Specter) which provides for U.S. aid cut-offs and sanctions in cases of egregious violations of religious liberty.
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 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."
Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (Wolf-Specter). The USCC has expressed support for the revised draft of the House version of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (H.R. 2431). As we understand it, the revised draft rightly links U.S. aid to a country's performance on religious liberty, a linkage that the bishops have long urged for the full range of fundamental human rights. As modified to meet our concerns, the bill covers persecution against all believers of all faiths, exempts most humanitarian aid, bans military sales, provides an appropriate waiver and offers limited though welcome relief for some refugees and asylum seekers. The bill represents a modest first step toward stronger action to protect asylum seekers. Retaining the asylum provision is essential for our support of the bill, and we hope that this provision can be expanded to include other categories of persons who are being persecuted.
- The Holy Father's visit last month to Cuba (covered in a separate backgrounder) raises hopes of positive changes in the political climate both in Cuba and in the U.S.
- In Sudan the Khartoum government continues to deny permission for Christians to build churches in the northern part of the country. Adults are sometimes killed for refusal to convert to Islam. Children are taken from their families, educated as Muslims, and sometimes sold into slavery.
- In September, Russia enacted a highly restrictive law that discriminates against minority religions (including the Catholic Church) and subjects these religions to arbitrary actions by local and federal officials. In response an American law imposes a partial aid cut-off unless the President certifies that the new law in not being implemented in a discriminatory manner. The USCC has made strong representations to both the U.S. and Russian governments; and has devoted considerable effort to assisting the Catholic Church in Russia in this matter.
- In May, the USCC unsuccessfully opposed renewal of China's most favored nation trade status due to serious violations of religious freedom and other human rights abuses. To assess the religious situation there, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and two other American religious leaders are now visiting China.
Committee on International Policy, U.S. Catholic Conference, A Season of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (available from USCC)
"Remarks by Rev. Msgr. William P. Fay," Associate General Secretary, U.S. Catholic Conference, Religious Leaders Summit on Religious Persecution, February 4, 1997 (available from USCC)
Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., "Written Testimony for a Hearing on Religious Intolerance in Europe Today," Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, September 18, 1997 (available from USCC)
U.S. Department of State, Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad Interim Report (January, 1998) (www.state.gov).
U.S. Department of State, U.S. Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Persecution of Christians (July, 1997) (www.state.gov). Gerard F. Powers 202-541-3196 (p)/ 202-541-3199 (f)/ e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
John F. Cullinan, SJ 202-541-3445 (p)/ 202-541-3199 (f)/ e-mail: email@example.com