BOSTON — How do you get off being the morality cop on issues that are internal, domestic issues?"
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."
Indonesia, which is moving toward elections in June, "has had a remarkable history of tolerance," he adds, "but now this huge economic downturn and political uncertainty have led to the burning of mosques and churches." It's hoped that influential religious leaders can act together to minimize conflicts and build a base for civil society.
A former president of Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bob Seiple is known as a "great communicator" - a talent he'll need to press his case with some of the world's more rigid governments. He recently returned from his first visits to China and several Middle Eastern nations.
The Chinese government has shown it is aware of the role religion played in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The fear of a similar situation shadows the issue of religious freedom in China, where Christianity has been exploding (estimates say at least 40 million are Christians).
China, Seiple says, presents a number of difficult issues, including the crackdown against Buddhists in Tibet, problems in the primarily Muslim northwest autonomous region, and ongoing difficulties with the so-called "house churches," both Roman Catholic and Protestant, in other areas. It also is the most visible example of the potential for competing interests in the fulfillment of US foreign policy goals. American business is avidly exploring opportunities, and tension has often arisen between business and those seeking a stronger US stand on human rights issues.
Seiple thinks the two communities can work together. "The deafening silence on the part of everyone but the human rights community when China jailed its dissidents should be disturbing to everybody. My feeling is that it wasn't because the business community didn't have strong feelings.... I think international business wants and needs to know how to lift its voice when rights are being violated. We have to find a way to help them do that."
Avoiding a backlash
Some people are concerned that pressing other nations on the issue will only tend to create a backlash against the worshipers within the country. "There is language in the bill that speaks to that question," Seiple says. So if it appears that will happen, "we can choose a private dmarche with the government instead of a public campaign.
"Many worry that the bill includes sanctions," he adds. "But it's a menu approach, from private conversation to restricting international aid. The president has a great deal of flexibility."
The independent Commission on International Religious Freedom, which can call witnesses and do investigations, will be a powerful accountability instrument, he suggests. There may be occasions when "we have to couch our language, but the commission will be able to say what it thinks. That may be the most interesting aspect to watch.
"Our job is to tell the truth about what's happening and then work with folks," Seiple says. His office will publish an annual report every Sept. 1 that looks at the status of religious freedom in each country. The commission will submit a report to the president every May 1, with recommendations for action. The president will choose how to respond.
Despite the blunt reaction he's gotten on initial visits so far, Seiple isn't a bit disheartened.
"There are reasons to do business with America that are compelling enough for countries to say, 'We better look at this [relationship] comprehensively,' " he says. "I found it very hopeful that no matter how they feel about this legislation," he adds, "they are already working to accommodate it. In that sense, my feeling is that the act is already working."