"Human rights are the island off the mainland of U.S. foreign policy," Stephen Prichard of Amnesty International lamented before a House subcommittee in hearings in March. Sailing along with that maritime metaphor, Nina Shea of Freedom House added, "Those of us interested in religious human rights have been the drowning man in the life raft just off the island."
Can that man be pulled ashore? Can at least a causeway unite the island and the mainland? Those are questions in Congress these next several months-and in the meantime, persecution overseas is rising.
The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act on March 25 passed the House Committee on International Relations 31-5, despite "unbelievably intense" Clinton administration opposition and veto threats, according to the Hudson Institute's Michael Horowitz. Supporters hope the full House will vote on the measure in May. It establishes an executive branch office to monitor religious persecution, cuts off "non-humanitarian aid" when necessary, and imposes other restrictions on countries that persecute. While isolating governments that mistreat religious believers, the bill avoids trade restrictions-with the exception of sanctions on Sudan-that have stalled other congressional efforts. "This is by and large not a trade bill," says Ann Huiskes, legislative aide to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the legislation's sponsor in the House.
Concerned lawmakers in March also formed the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force. The advocacy group, founded by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. It plans to organize members of Congress to adopt a "prisoner of faith" and to lobby heads of state on behalf of the persecuted.
Mr. Brownback said the effort will be modeled on earlier campaigns for religious captives, such as Soviet Jews a decade ago. "About one-third of all minority-faith communities are forced to meet clandestinely in underground or secret group meetings," he noted. "Most are nameless and lack advocates, yet they are the Sakharovs and Solzhenitsyns of their generation."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) added at a press conference last month, "Religious freedom is at the heart of the American experience, but it has too often been far from the heart of America's foreign policy. This task force provides us with one of those opportunities, to do good works regardless of what the legislative process produces or doesn't produce."
During March, members of the House unanimously passed a resolution urging the White House to condemn China's human-rights record at the annual UN Commission on Human Rights then convening in Geneva. Clinton administration officials issued a statement saying the White House would "neither propose nor support" a resolution before the UN commission, even though last year officials said the commission was "the appropriate forum" for doing so.
While the administration fiddles, specific acts of persecution continue apace. Just for the month of March:
Russian officials unveiled regulations to carry out last year's law restricting religious groups that are less than 15 years old. Experts say the regulations do little to amplify the controversial law and leave local officials wide discretion.
Invoking one section, local officials in southwest Siberia ordered a Pentecostal congregation to suspend many of its outreach activities. Officials in the republic of Khakassia (2,500 miles east of Moscow) told Proslavleniye Church that the church's visits to a home for elderly veterans and its program at a juvenile detention center could not continue. In a Feb. 24 letter, officials also said that hosting an international conference with preachers and participants from abroad was illegal. And they cited the church's Bible school for children as being in violation of the new law.
In a January radio interview, Khakassian official Nikolai Volkov called the church one of the "destructive cults" and said its programs would be suspended. He said he regretted that the government could not close the church altogether.
Church pastor Ruslan Belosevich told Keston News Service that he and his flock will not obey the government's demands. "We will wage this struggle to the end," he said. The church is seeking legal advice from Vladimir Ryakhovsky, head of Moscow's Christian Legal Center.
In Laos, 13 Christians were sentenced late last month on charges of "creating divisions and undermining the government." Eight men received three-year sentences for the offense. One man and a 20-year-old woman each received one-year sentences, and three older women received suspended one-year sentences.
The defendants were part of a gathering of 44 people, including three U.S. citizens, arrested during a Bible study at a private residence Jan. 30 in the capital, Vientiane. The others, including three Americans, a French woman, and a Thai Christian preacher, were freed after four days' detention. All those sentenced were denied the right to see their families until March 25.
Five of those sentenced were affiliated with Partners in Progress (PIP), a U.S.-based evangelical humanitarian aid organization. Their sentences came partly because they receive overseas funds. A spokesman for the Lao Foreign Ministry said the PIP workers had taken advantage of their non-governmental organization (NGO) status to "promote the worship of Christ."
Religious groups in Laos must be registered with the ruling Communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The government permits no independent human-rights groups to work in Laos, so PIP was able to work in the country through its UN status as an NGO.
In Israel, a debate intensified over legislation strictly curtailing freedom of expression. The bill is scheduled for a preliminary Knesset vote this month. The proposed law would make anyone convicted of preaching or teaching "with the purpose of causing another person to change his religion" liable for three years' imprisonment or a fine. Officials of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America say the law would strike "a death blow to the freedom of religious expression in Israel."
The bill has received most backing from Orthodox Jewish Knesset members. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at one point said he opposed the bill. However, in a letter to Meir Porush, an Orthodox rabbi and member of Knesset, he wrote, "I will support an appropriate bill that will reflect the suitable balance between the preservation of the freedom of religion and of expression on the one hand, and the worthy war against missionary activity on the other."
In Greece a little-known but long-standing law restricting non-Orthodox churches has made headlines. According to the Greek Evangelical Alliance, 15 churches were charged in 1997 for operating without a "house of prayer" license. Local police even filed suit against George Goudas, pastor of the 100-year-old Greek Evangelical Church of Thessaloniki, for operating without a license.
In March, that law earned international condemnation. The European Court of Human Rights fined the Greek government one million drachmas (about $3,500) for violating the right to free exercise of religion of three Air Force officers who are Protestant evangelicals. The Strasbourg, Vienna, court ruled that Greece had violated the European Convention of Human Rights in its application of the anti-proselytism law. The three officers were convicted of unlawful proselytism by Greek military and appellate courts. The multinational court's rulings, however, do not necessarily overturn the Greek court's decision. It was the first time a case involving evangelicals had been brought to the court.
In China, regulations effective March 1 include more detailed restrictions on worship, along with fines of up to $7,000 (the equivalent of several years' wages, typically) for unregistered churches or organizations. In Guangzhou, renowned house church leader Samuel Lamb pastors a house church into which 2,000 people sometimes crowd on Sunday morning. Three officials from the government's Religious Affairs Bureau visited Mr. Lamb at his house church on Feb. 10. They handed him a copy of last year's "Laws Controlling Religious Affairs for Guangzhou Municipality," in a clear attempt to force him to register with the government.
Government workers also told Mr. Lamb that Sunday schools are illegal. He reminded them that China has agreed to United Nations conventions stating that children are free to follow the faith of their parents. He said he would not register his church, and that he was prepared to go to prison for his defiance. Mr. Lamb, 73, has already served more than 20 years in prison for his illegal activities.
As Washington continues its debate over whether and how to rescue the drowning religious-liberty cause, Mr. Lamb and others persecuted for their faith are treading water.