Moved by stories of Christian women enslaved in Sudan, Buddhist nuns tortured in Tibet, and Iranian atrocities against Baha'i, Congress is considering a bill that would impose mandatory US economic sanctions on countries where religious persecution is rampant.
And if a group of Republican lawmakers has its way, the White House would be responsible for monitoring such persecution worldwide. The issue comes up next week, as a House committee takes up the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997.
"The protections of this bill apply to everyone - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, religious believers of any faith - who are severely persecuted because of their religious belief, practice, or affiliation," says Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia and Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, proposes an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring in the White House, which would review the human-rights reports of the State Department and other organizations. The office would also recommend economic sanctions against countries where religious persecution occurs - either by the government or by private organizations with the government's tacit compliance.
If the office found a pattern of religious persecution in a specific country, a graduated series of mandatory economic sanctions would take effect. These sanctions could lead, for example, to a ban on US exports of "persecution-facilitating products" - such as electric-shock equipment - to offending countries, or to a ban on all foreign aid except for humanitarian purposes. The president, however, could waive the sanctions for national-security reasons.
The bill would also give members of persecuted religious groups the same priority as ethnic minorities and human-rights activists in applying for refugee status in the US.
The bill has drawn praise from a wide spectrum of groups, ranging from the Christian Coalition to Amnesty International-USA. "The problem of religious persecution in the world today deserves all the attention it's getting from the Congress," says Stephen Rickard, Washington office director for Amnesty. "And we're very pleased that so many people in the US have been shocked and outraged by the various abuses committed against religious communities around the world and want something done about it."
While critics laud the intent of the bill, they take issue with the specifics. Much of the debate centers around the bill's use of mandatory sanctions. "Our experience has shown that in many cases sanctions can be counterproductive," says the Rev. Oliver Thomas, special counsel for the National Council of Churches. "They should be matter of last resort, not of first resort."
Some members of Congress also object to creating another government office and placing it outside the State Department's Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Bureau. "I wonder aloud how political this office can become," says conservative Rep. Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona. "I want to accomplish the same objectives. But foreign-policy concerns are best [left] with the secretary of State."
The State Department shares many of the critics' concerns and worries that the bill would tie the president's hands with an inflexible foreign policy. "While we support the goal of eliminating religious persecution, we oppose the bill in its present form," a department spokeswoman says.
Mr. Thomas echoes these concerns, and asks if the bill can really achieve its goals. "We have to be honest and say it's a statute that's likely to create more problems than it solves," he says.
The bill's supporters say they are open to further changes, but add that the sanctions are the "heart and soul of the bill."
"Tyrants understand strength," Smith says. "They also understand weakness.... This bill is designed to help people whose situation is particularly compelling, and with whom many Americans feel strong bonds of affinity and obligation."