WASHINGTON — Based on scattered reports and anecdotal evidence, the 1990s is not proving to be a happy time for persons of minority faiths.
From China to the Sudan to Eastern Europe, religious persecution and harassment appear to be rising. Yet issues of freedom of religion abroad have not been given close attention by the United States government, or by many human rights groups.
As a Clinton administration official told the Monitor, "We lost track after the Soviet Jewry movement. There's really no 'Amnesty International' of religion to inform us how bad the problem is."
In the next month, however, American officials in a small State Department office will help establish a special advisory committee that will begin to track religious persecution, make recommendations to the White House, and even help the memberships of various faiths act in concert against harassment.
Made up of an impressive list of 20 American scholars and religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim, and other traditions, the committee will meet for the first time in February.
Currently, no official body in the US acts as a liaison to the nation's religious community or presses to implement Article 18 of both the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee "freedom of thought, religion, and conscience" and freedom from coercion in matters of faith.
Yet critics, many of them conservative Christians and Jews, say the new committee is only window dressing. They claim that the Clinton administration's foreign policy has ignored human rights, including those of minority faiths abroad.
Clear violations of religious freedom
Even State Department sources agree that a disinterest in religious matters in the elite secular culture of the US Foreign Service, combined with a decline in human rights priorities after the cold war, has resulted in scant attention paid to religious freedoms.
"It is not inaccurate to say these issues have been neglected," says an American official close to the new committee. "But they haven't been singled out for neglect. The whole area is terra incognita for us."
Clearly, there are many violations of the UN religious freedom articles. For example:
*During 1996, China imprisoned hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks in an ongoing crackdown on believers. Roman Catholic leaders were imprisoned, and three Christian evangelicals were killed, for worshipping independently of state-authorized churches. Last spring, nearly 15,000 churches, temples, and religious grave sites were destroyed in the coastal province of Zhejiang.
*In October, an Assemblies of God leader in Iran, the Rev. Mohammed Bagher Yusefi, was found dead under suspicious circumstances - the fourth Iranian Protestant leader to die mysteriously since 1994. Yet that figure pales when compared with the dozens of leaders of Bahai's National Spiritual Assembly in Iran who have been jailed or killed.
*In Indonesia's East Java region in October, 25 Christian churches were burned and five people killed in religious riots involving Muslims and Christians.
*In southern Sudan, Christians are routinely imprisoned and, as two Western reporters discovered earlier this year, their children have been sold as slaves.
*Buddhist monks in Cambodia and Vietnam are systematically arrested and imprisoned.
What is not clear is the scope of the problem. No comprehensive human rights reports of the type done on political, gender, or ethnic rights violations have been undertaken.
Amnesty International documented religious persecutions in China in 1995 and 1996, and the State Department's annual report has a section on religion. But there is a lack of basic country-by-country assessments weighing physical torture of Coptic Christians in Egypt, for example, with more widespread but less visible harassment like denial of the right to assemble or to possess religious texts, employment discrimination, or the various minor prejudices that makes daily life difficult for groups such as Catholics and evangelicals in Ukraine.
"There is no one-stop shopping for information about religious freedom abroad," says Jess Hordes of the Anti-Defamation League in Washington. "There is no good ecumenical group now devoted to the problem. It hasn't been given the attention it deserves."
"Religious persecution just doesn't hit our radar screens," says Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University in Atlanta, a Jewish studies and Holocaust scholar and member of the new advisory committee. "Print and TV media don't look at it. It is ignored."
When conservatives Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute in Washington and Nina Shea, an expert on persecution of Christians at the Freedom Forum in Washington, began criticizing the US for its lack of a policy on evangelical persecution, the White House responded this fall with the advisory committee.
At first the new Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad seemed on the verge of becoming "a bandwagon for Islam-bashing," as one administration source put it, since some advocates wanted to focus on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan. Other interest groups lobbying the State Department human rights office, headed by John Shattuck, made it clear they did not want religious persecution narrowly defined.
Finally, it became clear to some American officials that lack of religious freedom was "an invisible problem, and becoming more serious in the post-cold-war world," as one put it.
Alexandra Arriaga, the committee's executive secretary, says her panel will focus on identifying the breadth of religious persecution, help with interreligious cooperation, and try to promote principles of separation of church and state abroad.
How and when to help are tough decisions
But no one is sure what direction the committee will go, either in terms of policy or consensus about the problem. Religious sensibilities make for complex statecraft, American officials say.
For example, many in the State Department and nongovernmental organizations in the field say that evangelicals who aggressively proselytize in traditional cultures are asking for trouble. Should the State Department spend large amounts of political capital to help those who ignore its advice?
Then there is the question to settle about states whose dominant religions make certain demands. Islam doesn't allow for conversions out of Islam. What position does the US take in Islamic countries?
Nor is a public approach to persecution always effective. "When we go high profile to lobby for a Coptic Christian in prison in Egypt, he may get killed," says one National Security Council source. "When you never hear about our efforts, that's when he may be released."
Still, many in the religious community are bothered by the flip side of the coin, what seems to be an indifference and even hostility among US Foreign Service officers toward accommodating religious faith and supporting Article 18, which the US is bound to do.
American ambassador to China James Sasser, for example, was briefed for nine months prior to presenting his credentials in Beijing - but was never informed about the "home church" movement in China, the underground Christians who may number 40 million.
"It's not just that the State Department hasn't been prepared to deal with religious-freedom issues," says one Washington insider close to the committee. "It is that they don't want to deal with them. They feel uncomfortable. Some career diplomats feel more sympathy with the government abroad than with the religious minority or missionary group."
One diplomat told the Monitor recently about a State Department library exhibit on the Dalai Lama - which ran even while the department's China desk was drafting press statements critical of Tibetan priests for "rocking the boat" with Chinese officials.
Nearly all the religious leaders contacted want freedom-of-religion standards to receive higher priority in American foreign policy.
"Through this committee, the churches could step up and act as a counterbalance to the business lobby," argues Ms. Shea of Freedom House. Her report on persecution of Christians abroad, "In the Lion's Den," will be published next month.
"Almost every human rights group - left, right, and center - agrees that the promotion of trade and profit seems to be the sole pillar of our foreign policy these days," she says. Shea wants American immigration and asylum policies toward religious persecution to match the generous policies toward Soviet Jews in the 1980s.
Critics like Dr. Horowitz characterize the new committee as a "charade" that will have little clout in the White House and whose only purpose is to appease the domestic American religious constituency.
"I didn't sign up for a charade," replies committee member Dr. Lipstadt. "And it better not be a charade."
Other participants include David Little of the US Institute for Peace; Rabbi Irving Greenberg of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Wilma Ellis of the Bahais of America; Diana Eck of Harvard University; Imam Wallace Deen Mohammed, leader of the Society of Muslims, the largest black Muslim group in America; and the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of the Churches of Christ.
Considering that the US was formed by the children of immigrants seeking religious freedom, and that one of the main innovations of America is the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom, many religious leaders say the new committee is long overdue.
Dr. Little, a Yale professor prior to joining the committee, says, "The US has a special role in religious-freedom issues. Our own history of working out relations between church and state, while not always a model, still offers an important history for others to look at in terms of peaceful coexistence."