Ultimate free exercise: National Day of Prayer

Today, millions of Americans are expected to gather at houses of worship, city halls, and state capitols across the country to celebrate the National Day of Prayer.

An annual event first established by Congress in 1952 to encourage prayer for the country and its leaders, it has gathered momentum since President Reagan designated the first Thursday of May as the official time each year. Some 20,000 events, ranging from prayer breakfasts to Bible reading marathons to rallies and concerts, are expected to take place in the 50 states.

This year's theme is "One Nation Under God." "Americans of all faiths are encouraged to participate according to their own traditions," says the National Day of Prayer task force.

US panel targets religious persecution in ten countries

American desires to bring an end to religious persecution and expand religious freedoms abroad came to the fore again this week, as a high-level US commission offered strong words and proposed specific actions against China and nine other countries.

China's crackdown on religious groups has only expanded since the US granted it normal trade status, the panel said in its annual report, and it's time to take a tougher stance, including seeking to deprive Beijing of its dream to host the Olympic Games.

"The situation in China has grown worse over the past year," says Elliott Abrams, chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. "The US government must make religious freedom a higher priority in bilateral relations."

The report also includes proposals for US actions in regard to Sudan, Russia, India, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Vietnam, (www.uscirf.gov)

The recommendations on Vietnam were sent earlier to the Bush administration and have already had an impact. Press reports from Hanoi indicate Vietnamese officials are upset over what they view as a delay in approval of the trade pact signed by the Clinton administration. The commission proposes that the trade pact not be ratified without evidence of improvement in protection of religious freedoms (or a Congressional resolution to that effect), and that the US withhold support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to Vietnam.

A strong voice against the "genocidal atrocities" in Sudan, the commission calls the Khartoum government "the world's most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion." It calls for a diplomatic initiative to halt bombing of civilians, and for companies with access to US capital markets to disclose the nature of any business they have in Sudan.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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