US grapples with how to help curtail religious persecution abroad

President Bush boldly injected religion into his domestic agenda with a new office to fund faith-based social programming. Will he be as bold on the foreign-policy front?

For two years now, in response to Americans' growing concerns about religious persecution in other countries, the US has kept a close eye on violations of freedom abroad. The US State Department and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom prepare annual reports, and hearings spotlight countries of particular concern. US law provides options for action against the biggest violators.

But the government's responses to the most egregious situations haven't been impressive - says the commission in its assessment for 2000 ( China barely got tapped on the wrist as conditions continued to deteriorate, and Sudan hasn't been hit as hard with sanctions as it could be, despite horrendous practices. Other nations haven't been put on the list though situations warrant it.

Not at all surprising, realpolitik types might respond. National security and economic interests come into play. US action could sometimes be counterproductive, others say.

Can the US have any impact? Just how challenging the picture can be is evident from the commission's latest hearings, held last week on Vietnam. The Clinton administration signed a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam in July. The US Congress will consider ratifying it this spring. Meanwhile, Vietnam's record on religious freedom may be worse than China's.

"Religious activity is enjoying a real revival," testified Zachary Abuza, of Simmons College, Boston. But while the Vietnamese government allows "individual faith, it fears the growth of organized religion, which it sees as a threat to its monopoly of power."

Consequently, it places strict controls on churches, oversees the appointment of all clergy, must approve all publications, and has seized most properties. Security police infiltrate the clergy, and party leaders at all levels monitor religious activity.

Vietnamese testifiers shared many telling examples:

*On Feb. 8, when Buddhists organized two days of prayer for peace at a Hue temple, security police threatened those trying to attend, and ordered high schools to hold classes over the weekend so teachers and students could not participate.

*On Feb. 4, an elderly Buddhist leader was arrested twice and subjected to seven hours of intense interrogation after making a holiday visit to another elderly leader who has been under house arrest for 18 years.

*Five Catholic priests are serving prison sentences of 5 to 10 years for carrying out pastoral activities without getting local government permission.

*Religious adherents released from prison are not given residence permits, which all citizens must have, thus depriving them of legal status.

*Last fall, when Buddhists attempted to deliver relief to victims of Mekong Delta floods affecting 4 million people, they were kept from doing so, even though the government had to seek aid from foreign countries.

"How has Vietnam escaped international condemnation when it has been implementing a deliberate policy to suppress freedom of ... religion in every form?" asked Vo Van Ai, overseas spokesman for Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

Vietnamese testifiers called on the US to incorporate human-rights guarantees into the trade agreement. But policy analysts cautioned against steps that might cause a backlash.

The Bush administration said last weekend it intends to take a tougher line against China at the UN Human Rights Commission meeting in a few weeks. The question remains whether this signals any stronger stance to come on religious freedom.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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