Religious Freedom - The Often Forgotten Right

On his recent trip to Africa, President Clinton offered an expression of regret for what he regards as America's failures of policy toward that continent, both recent (Rwanda) and remote (slavery). One could only wish he would be as forthright about his administration's neglect of the most serious human rights problem in the world today: the rampant persecution of religious believers, notably Christians.

The reality is that millions of believers worldwide face the incessant, terrifying prospect of torture, arrest, imprisonment, and even state-sponsored murder for simply practicing their faith.

In the remaining communist-ruled countries - China, Vietnam, North Korea - repression to stamp out religion, or subject it to state controls, continues unabated. In the Islamic world, oppression of Christians and other non-Muslims is endemic, with Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt the notable offenders.

It is reliably estimated that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. More than half of all people today live under severe restrictions, if not prohibitions, of their ability to believe in and practice the religion of their choice. Some specifics include:

* One of China's leading Protestant evangelist pastors, Peter Xu, is languishing in a prison under a three-year term for the crime of "disturbing public order." Perhaps thousands of other believers in China suffer similar treatment.

* Sudan - not too far from where Mr. Clinton offered his regrets in Uganda - is notorious for the revival of the slave trade by the radical pro-Iranian regime in Khartoum, with non-Muslims subject to wholesale abduction, enslavement, and mutilation.

* In Pakistan, just a few months ago, Pastor Noor Alam was stabbed to death by anti-Christian fanatics. Previously, they had destroyed his church building. Christians and other non-Muslims continue to suffer under notorious "blasphemy laws," under which any non-Muslim can be put to death for "insulting" Islam or Muhammad.

* In Egypt, the government turns a blind eye to the violent Muslim fundamentalist campaign against the native Coptic Christian community of 10 million.

* No overt practice of non-Islamic religion is permitted in Saudi Arabia. By law, Saudi Christian converts are beheaded.

What has been the administration's response to this intensifying crisis? Virtual silence. While the State Department has shown notable concern about women's rights, repression of labor activists, and homosexual rights, its silence on religious repression has been deafening. In fact, the administration hasn't even shown concern for violation of Americans' religious freedom by persecuting regimes.

For example, the State Department collaborated with the denial of religious freedom by shutting down Christian services on the premises of the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and punished a whistle-blowing State Department official who protested. Similarly, the State Department has refused to take any action to secure the release of two girls - US citizens - kept from leaving Saudi Arabia for 13 years now because, as females, they may not travel (even though the elder one is now an adult) without their Saudi father's permission. They have been forcibly converted to Islam and face the possibility of forced marriage.

To date, the only response to the growing groundswell demanding action on religious persecution has been the creation of an advisory committee - and the issuing of more reports. This is not good enough.

That's why I've introduced the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (S.1868) to ensure the US takes action. Unlike other proposals which grant the president blanket authority to waive all sanctions, S.1868 requires the president to take action in all 77 countries cited in the State Department's annual report on Religious Persecution.

The act presents a menu of diplomatic and economic actions, and the president is required to select from at least one. Silence is not an option. At the same time, the act provides the president maximum flexibility in choosing the most appropriate response in light of US interests and the likely effect on the plight of the people we are trying to help. Also, it requires that US citizens have access to consulates for religious activities on the same basis as other unofficial activities.

Twenty centuries into the Christian era, it should be universally recognized that it is wrong for a country to persecute, prosecute, harass, imprison, or torture people simply for practicing their faith.

Religious persecution is the most serious human rights problem in the world today. The struggle against it should be near the top of the US international agenda. If Clinton can't recognize that on his own, Congress will take action to see that he does.

* Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma, is the assistant majority leader of the US Senate.

More Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.

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