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In the diplomatic hot seat - religion

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 1999


How do you get off being the morality cop on issues that are internal, domestic issues?"

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That's the question he's heard from almost everyone in one form or another on his first visits to other countries, says Robert A. Seiple, the new United States ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

Dr. Seiple - who was president for more than a decade of World Vision, which he helped make the world's largest privately funded relief and development agency - is not put off by the question. He knows his post and the International Religious Freedom Act passed by the US Congress last October are controversial in the eyes of many.

"It's something of a minefield," he says, smiling. The controversy started at home. The impetus for the bill was the growing awareness of the persecution of Christians in several countries. But various religious groups and the business lobby debated vigorously for months whether such a law would benefit or harm those it was intended to help. (It eventually passed Congress with overwhelming support.)

It's more controversial abroad, where some see it as a bid to "make sure the mission fields are kept open." Others see it as an infringement on their sovereignty, and others as another manifestation of US cultural imperialism.

But Seiple doesn't see himself as a "morality cop," and offers a three-part response to his hosts: Religion is a universal right recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. All international covenants that deal with religious freedom (and most countries have signed some) have inherent within them the assumption of mutual accountability, in which countries should feel they can raise issues with one another.

And third, he says, nations are engaged "in major ways on many levels, from disaster assistance to foreign aid, investment, trade, and military security; it would be a profound point of absentia not to engage on human rights."

"This is an area the American people feel strongly about," Seiple says, "so strongly that it's now a mandate of our foreign policy" (see box). But it is not directed at particular countries or solely for the benefit of certain religions. His State Department office, for instance, has launched a dialogue with the US Muslim community on issues of concern.

Freedom and reconciliation

He sees his portfolio as involving three main tasks - "to promote religious freedom, to promote reconciliation, and to make sure that those are woven into the fabric of our foreign policy." He feels strongly, too, about the reconciliation aspect - otherwise we're dealing "only with the symptoms," he says.

During his years at World Vision, Seiple came face to face with many of the tragedies of today's divided societies. He arrived in Rwanda shortly after the genocide in 1994. "An image sticks in my mind," says Ken Casey, senior vice president at World Vision, "of Bob standing on a bridge watching the bodies float down the river beneath him, trying to understand how such an inhumanity could happen." He recognized, Mr. Casey adds, that much of the tragedy we faced [in many places] was the result of conflicts where there was a lack of attempt at reconciliation between people. He made reconciliation a major concern across the World Vision partnership, Casey says.

Now Seiple's office is at work in Bosnia and Indonesia. It supports efforts by the World Conference of Religion and Peace to engage interreligious councils of local religious leaders in bridging the gaps. "Coming into Bosnia after the war is incredibly more difficult than going to Indonesia before these outbreaks become totally out of control," he says. "They are escalating quickly, and it's scary what could happen."