Features

A milestone, with many miles to go

International | Religious freedom activists praise the State Department's first report on worldwide religious freedom, but fault the government for trimming its sails with "friendly" nations

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

When the State Department released its first Annual Report on Religious Freedom Sept. 9, it was a day long in coming. An active movement to gain U.S. government recognition of persecution goes back at least four years, when Michael Horowitz penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that called on the State Department to show "implacable hostility to anti-Christian terror." The campaign that followed concluded last October with enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act. But broad is the way from rhetoric to a place in the law books. The persecution movement now includes sometimes competing interest groups-representing Muslims, Jews, Baha'is, and Hindus in addition to Christian advocates-and has its own toehold in the diplomatic bureaucracy.

So it should be no surprise that the government's first report on religious freedom is both prolix and self-aware of U.S. foreign policy. Nonetheless, embedded in the 1,000-page tome is official acknowledgment that religious freedom is, in the words of the State Department's own fact sheet, "the very heart of human rights."

If it is a report card on worldwide persecution, it is also a check-up on how seriously U.S. diplomats are willing to take the issue. Veteran persecution watchers, who spoke with the online news service Newsroom, say the report is a U.S. foreign policy milestone-with a few miles to go.

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Steven Snyder, head of Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern, said, "For the 14 years I've been working in Washington as an advocate for persecuted Christians, I have always seen the State Department maintain the status quo rather than cause waves that would jeopardize relations, especially in countries with strong trade relations. [The report] is stronger than what I have seen in the annual State Department reports to Congress on human rights, but it has a ways to go yet to clearly point the finger at violating countries without any apology." Even so, he said, it was "a step in the right direction."

Dwight Gibson, the U.S. head of the World Evangelical Fellowship, believes that the State Department document is "a good survey of issues and concerns.... This is a survey, and we need to keep in mind who is the producer and what are the aims and concerns of the producer and recognize that that producer has certain concerns that they want to deal with and others that they don't want to deal with," he said. "So we need to recognize it for what it is."

Critics charge that the report hedged in confronting countries that are important U.S. trading partners or national-security outposts. Private groups like California-based Open Doors, for example, consistently rank Saudi Arabia among the top five persecuting nations, even though it is a large base for U.S. military operations and a strategic ally in the Persian Gulf. Christians in Saudi Arabia are frequently jailed for possessing Bibles or conducting worship services. Muttawa, or Islamic religious police, are known to mutilate Muslim converts to Christianity. Yet the State Department report notes only that converts are "subject to criminal prosecution."

The same paragraph more pointedly cites Serbia's Orthodox Christian majority-which was opposed by U.S.-led forces over Kosovo-for "killing, torture, rape, and forced mass emigration."

"The report is influenced by U.S. policy," said Elliott Abrams, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. "The language used to describe Saudi Arabia is careful; there is no tone of outrage. This is predictable; that's how we always talk about Saudi Arabia."

According to some experts, the report is also soft on China, which courted President Clinton in its bid to gain entrance to the World Trade Organization the same week the report was released. In spite of a crackdown on the sect Falun Gong and ongoing imprisonment of Christian house-church leaders, the summary of findings reads without clarity: "In China government intolerance of unregistered religious activity has led in some areas to persecution of persons on the basis of their religious practice, through harassment, prolonged detention, and incarceration in prison or 'reform through labor' camps, and police closure of places of worship and other holy places."

Mr. Horowitz, who went on to help draft the legislation that mandated the report, told Newsroom: "When the chips are down the State Department is out there to negotiate to improve relations with China no matter how many religious leaders are in prison."

The director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, Nina Shea, called the report "disappointing" in its coverage of China, as well as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Overall, she said she would still call the report a milestone.

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