N.Y.C. Weighs In On Religious Rights

National and local legislators are moving to punish countries that persecute Christians and minority religions.

Yesterday, New York became the first city in America to announce hearings on legislation that would bar its departments from doing business with countries that persecute Christians for their religious beliefs. The legislation sponsored by Peter Vallone, the Speaker of the City Council, singles out 15 countries, including China, Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

If the legislation is passed, admits Mr. Vallone, "it will create a worldwide furor. If we do nothing else but get their attention, it's worthwhile."

Next week, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (R) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia will introduce federal legislation that will set up a new White House office to monitor religious persecution and to limit foreign aid and World Bank loans to violators. That bill, aimed at those persecuting Christians, Tibetans, and Bahais, is still being drafted but will skirt trade issues.

The legislation comes at a time when the media are beginning to look more closely at the issue of religious freedom in countries such as China. Vallone says he was moved to action by a New York Times column by A.M. Rosenthal about persecution abroad and by a book written by Nina Shea of Freedom House, a human rights group. "I got my staff looking at it and it was more than just a rumor, this is actually going on," he says.

This is not the first time New York has ventured into the realm of foreign policy. In the 1970s, the city became part of the anti-apartheid movement and required city contractors to verify that they did not do business with South Africa. With the fourth largest budget in the nation, the city quickly got the attention of its contractors.

MORE recently, the City Council became involved in the issue of Swiss banks and their deposits of money from the Nazi era. "All I had to do was announce the introduction of a bill and within a week I had the president of the Swiss Parliament, the heads of the three major Swiss banks, and the Swiss ambassador in my office and they said they would set up a fund of $100 million," says Vallone. To underline the city's muscle, "we invested $250 million in one day in a Swiss bank and that gets their attention."

The City Council has already passed legislation banning New York City from doing business with Burma. Yesterday, the law was sent to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his approval or veto. Unlike President Clinton's executive order, which deals with future business with Burma, the city's legislation deals with any company that is currently in the southeast Asian country.

To enforce its foreign policy forays, the city requires vendors to certify that they don't do business with a proscribed country. This includes local dealers. For example, if the city buys Ford Motor Company vehicles, the local Ford dealer would be held responsible if the parent company was doing business in a banned country.

The city legislation is likely to meet with stiff opposition from corporations, particularly those doing business with China. This would include all banks that do business with the city. The legislation requires the city to give its business to the banks with the highest human rights standards. The countries singled out by the city are China, Sudan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Turkey, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Morocco, Laos, and Vietnam.

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