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Defending the Faiths

Defending the Faiths

Mini Teaser: Global religious persecution increased during the 1990s, but not as rapidly as America's awareness of it. The proper place of religious freedom in the hierarchy of U.S. foreign policy concerns.

by Author(s): Allen D. HertzkeDaniel Philpott

MANY OF today's foreign policy challenges-from Russian weakness and Iraqi aggression to Balkan instability and the rise of China-were anticipated during the waning days of the Cold War. One issue, however, has taken the foreign affairs community completely by surprise: global religious persecution.
A worldwide report by two British researchers, Kevin Boyle and Juliet Sheen, notes, "Religious persecution of minority faiths, forcible conversion, desecration of religious sites, the proscribing of beliefs and pervasive discrimination, killings and torture, are daily occurrences at the end of the twentieth century." The victims include Christians, Buddhists, Baha'is, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and animists. The perpetrators include communist governments (China, Laos, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea), Islamist regimes (Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan), other Islamic states under pressure from militants (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Algeria), and authoritarian regimes such as Iraq, Serbia and Burma.

In response to such persecution, the cause of religious freedom, which until recently was the passion of a small cadre of Christian activists, has today become the subject of talk shows, op-ed pieces, government reports and even official legislation. A movement on behalf of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities blossomed in the 1990s, sparking congressional hearings, which, in turn, prompted the Clinton administration to act more forcefully against violations of religious freedom abroad. Hoping to stave off more vigorous legislative action, in 1996 the administration created a State Department Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom, which was followed in 1997 by a congressionally-mandated State Department report on the persecution of Christians abroad. In that same year, Madeleine Albright instructed American embassies to emphasize religious freedom in their human rights reports and to nurture contacts with local religious figures.

Then, in the fall of 1998, Congress passed the landmark International Religious Freedom Act, enshrining religious freedom as a basic aim of American foreign policy. The law creates new offices at the State Department and the National Security Council devoted to the issue; funds "soft" initiatives to advance the legal protection of religious practice; requires an annual report on the status of religious freedom around the world; establishes an independent commission to monitor violations; and recommends presidential action against violating countries.

With a few exceptions, the mainstream media and foreign policy commentariat have reacted coolly to these developments, suspecting that the attention the issue has received is merely a sop to conservative Christian lobbies. But, pursued wisely, the elevation of religious freedom can properly serve the national interest. It is congruent not only with international human rights covenants, but with our founding tradition and basic values. It complements the promotion of civil society and democracy, and it may easily be pursued in tandem with our other interests.

The Emergence of a Cause

The pervasiveness of religious persecution around the globe today does not in itself account for the new momentum of the movement to counter it. After all, atrocities directed against religious minorities were a leitmotif of the twentieth century. Two other elements now give urgency to the cause: first, a growing recognition of the unique role of religious freedom in fostering liberalization and democracy; and, second, the emergence of a formidable network of determined activists who document persecution and press for vigorous U.S. action. Contrary to critics who claim that such activism remains the exclusive property of the religious right, the advocacy network is wide and diverse, composed of Catholics, Jews, evangelicals, some mainline Protestants and members of both parties of Congress.

The groundwork for the cause was laid by Christian groups-Christian Solidarity International, International Christian Concern, Open Doors, the Cardinal Kung Foundation and others-that have forged links with, and documented the persecution of, underground Christian churches abroad. Joining them have been groups that represent such besieged religious minorities as Tibetan Buddhists and Iranian Baha'is, and those that fight against the enslavement of black North Africans, many of whom are Christians.

These organizations have provided an outlet for activists such as Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, both at Freedom House, who have succeeded in bringing the issue to the attention of politicians and the media. In turn, the huge "para-church" network of evangelical broadcasting and direct mail ministries has drawn on their efforts to generate grassroots interest and pressure. A wide array of Christian churches and their policy arms has also embraced the cause, including the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Episcopal Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Salvation Army and the National Association of Evangelicals. In Congress, Frank Wolf (R-VA), Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Tony Hall (D-OH) in the House, and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Don Nickles (R-OK) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) in the Senate have made the issue a centerpiece of their legislative efforts.

Among the cause's most important spokesmen have been Jews. Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official currently with the Hudson Institute, catalyzed the movement. Journalist Abe Rosenthal, after being "screamed awake" by Horowitz, used his former perch at the New York Times to pen over a dozen columns on the global persecution of Christians. Mainstream Jewish organizations, from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to the Anti-Defamation League, have been pivotal backers of religious freedom legislation. Indeed, Rabbi David Saperstein, the principal lobbyist for Reform Judaism, not only emerged as a crucial leader in the campaign, but was selected as the first chairman of the newly legislated Commission on International Religious Freedom. He was followed in that position by former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams.

Many close to the cause credit Horowitz with bringing together what was until recently a fragmented movement. A relentless advocate and a blunt polemicist, Horowitz prodded and harangued Christian leaders into action. Linking the fate of Christian minorities to that of his own co-religionists, he argued that "Christians are the Jews of the 21st Century", the "victims of choice for thug regimes", and the "canaries in the coal mine" that warn of broader human rights abuses. Throughout the late 1990s, he campaigned tirelessly for congressional action; most recently he was arrested in front of the State Department while protesting the administration's policies on Sudan.

A National Priority

The pressure brought to bear by Horowitz and his cohort helped spark congressional policymakers to produce one of the most comprehensive human rights statutes now on the books. The International Religious Freedom Act has mandated offices and procedures to ensure public attention for religious freedom and presidential action to promote it. It has also established the nation's (and the world's) first ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a position to which President Clinton appointed Robert A. Seiple, former director of the Christian development organization, World Vision.

In his first report to Congress, Seiple testified that his office has become a clearinghouse for "people with information about persecution and discrimination, and for the persecuted themselves." The law has also established a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to monitor religious persecution and forward recommendations to the president and Congress. Composed of nine voting members appointed by Congress and the president on the basis of a partisan formula, the Commission is independent of presidential administrations and federal bureaucracies and maintains a separate budget, office and staff.

As required by law, in September 1999 the State Department produced its first annual report on religious persecution. Much like the State Department's report on human rights, the document contains over one thousand pages of detailed information drawn from embassies around the globe, and has prompted a series of diplomatic communiques to offending governments. In addition, the State Department must identify countries "of particular concern", egregious violators that in 1999 included Burma, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan.

Though the president is directed to act on all findings of persecution in the annual report, he may choose from a menu of options, which include a private demarche, the cancellation of a state visit, the withdrawal of non-humanitarian aid or even of trade subsidies. In instances of serious violations, he must choose from among more punitive measures such as sanctions. Although the president may waive sanctions for reasons of "important national interest", he must do so publicly. This provision is intended to promote clear presidential accountability, enabling the Commission or Congress to press for more vigorous action if they feel the White House has been too timid. What the law ensures, therefore, is regular exposure, priority consideration, protest and, at times, some form of weightier response to severe violations of religious freedom.

The idea that the legislation champions is straightforward. Religious believers should enjoy the right to worship freely; express their beliefs publicly; educate their children according to these beliefs; build and run houses of worship, schools, universities and seminaries; enjoy freedom from discrimination in employment and political access; and retain the liberty to take up, abandon, proclaim or dissent from their religion. At least this is how the right is articulated by international legal documents, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the un Declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief.

The recognition of religious freedom in international law, however, contrasts sharply with its gross violation in practice. Because of an unheralded demographic revolution-a tectonic shift of the globe's Christian population toward developing and non-democratic countries-Christians constitute the most numerous victims of persecution in the world today. While the proportion of Christians living in Asia, Latin America and Africa was roughly 25 percent in 1950, today it is approaching 60 percent. Paul Marshall estimates that at least two hundred million Christians live in countries where persecution is a regular occurrence, while many more live under "non-trivial restrictions on religious liberty." Reports published so far leave little question that millions of Christians in Asia, the Middle East and Africa live under the threat of murder, torture, arrest and abduction.

Behind the persecution lies one of the great surprises of the late twentieth century: a global resurgence of faith. Indeed, secularizing trends in Western Europe and among a thin, if influential, stratum of global intellectual elites now stand out as exceptions to more general trends. As Samuel Huntington has observed, persecution endures precisely because religion matters, and matters increasingly. When religion becomes important to people, dictatorial governments "will insist on controlling it, suppressing it, regulating it, prohibiting it, and manipulating it to their own advantage." In China, for example, the communist regime has subjugated Tibetan Buddhists for over a generation and has initiated similar policies toward Muslims in Xinjiang. More generally, it restricts religious observance to state-run churches and has carried out a systematic campaign to eliminate worship by millions of unregistered Christians, in some cases imprisoning and torturing leaders of "house churches." The May 2000 report of the Commission asserts that the regime's violations of religious freedom have increased "markedly" over the past year.

The case for American leadership against religious persecution rests in part on the international declaratory tradition of human rights, but even more on the role that religious freedom plays in our own legal tradition. The cacophony of denominations and sects in the early Republic, many of which had fled here to escape persecution, led the framers of the Constitution to enshrine the legal guarantee of free expression of religion, providing all religious sects with a stake in the pluralist system.

The issue also finds precedent in American foreign policy. The Jackson-Vanik legislation of the 1970s championed the liberty of Jews under Soviet and East European communism. America was also a leader in promoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The legitimate place of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy, then, requires no special plea or argument. Any partisan of universal human rights, any enthusiast for the genius of the First Amendment of the Constitution, ought to have a prima facie sympathy for the cause, if not for the specific remedies.

The case for religious freedom, though, extends beyond its intrinsic justice. Freedom of religion is a rich and potent human right, for its very practice entails other human rights as well: the right to assemble, to express oneself freely, to print literature, to own property. As the revolutions in Eastern Europe suggest, and as dissident Wei Jingsheng has argued with respect to China, allowing freedom for religious communities simultaneously opens space for political dissidents, labor organizers and other human rights advocates. Churches and religious organizations are vital to a healthy civil society, to the layer of mediating institutions whose importance to democracy Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill famously stressed.

As Huntington has demonstrated convincingly, Western Christianity in particular has encouraged democratization. Its emphasis on the dignity of the individual, the equality of all souls before God, and the autonomy of churches from state control (now embraced by both Catholic and major Protestant traditions) fosters a respect for civil rights and institutional pluralism. Christianity may also foster democracy by molding opinion and encouraging opposition to authoritarian rule. Once the Catholic Church came to endorse liberal rights and democratic government in the Second Vatican Council, for example, it became a forceful advocate for change in Latin America and in Eastern Europe. Even the Chinese government has acknowledged the democratizing force of Christianity. Noting the role of Christian churches in the downfall of the Warsaw Pact in 1992, an official party organ urged that to avoid a similar fate the regime must "strangle the baby while it is still in the manger."

Today, nearly nine out of every ten of the nations Freedom House designates as "free" are Christian countries, while others, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have substantial Christian populations and Christian leaders. Contrary to secular intellectuals' image of Christianity as backward or colonial, its indigenous growth outside the West is one of the signal democratizing forces around the globe today. A policy promoting religious freedom, then, will alert vulnerable Christian minorities-and also independent Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and others-that the United States stands with their struggle for free expression.

Answering the Skeptics

Not surprisingly, the stress on religious freedom in foreign policy has encountered detractors. These include not only devotees of realpolitik, but also some within the human rights community itself and within such liberal Protestant organizations as the National Council of Churches.

Some detractors emphasize the negative role of religion-its historic record as a major source of persecution. From the Spanish Inquisition in Europe to the Puritans of New England and the Taliban of Afghanistan, religious institutions, when enmeshed with coercive state power, have harshly oppressed dissenters. But acknowledging this fact does not mean that religious freedom should be less vigorously promoted than other human rights. Quite the contrary. Promoting it will further protect minority faiths from the abuses of state power. Moreover, the stereotype of "Christians as persecutors" rests mostly on a record prior to Western Christendom's contact with, and ongoing adaptation to, the Enlightenment.

Much criticism of the cause also seems to reflect a mistrust of its conservative supporters. William Martin, a scholar normally sensitive and fair to religion, has described the legislative campaign as part of a conservative religious agenda that includes predictions about the coming of the anti-Christ and a fundamentalist paranoia toward the European Union. Then, too, human rights activists have dismissed the issue as "special pleading" on behalf of "certain classes of victims." New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis argued in 1997 that the proposed legislation creates a "hierarchy of human rights" in which religious freedom crowds out genocide, political repression and racial persecution. In a similar vein, the National Council of Churches complains that the policy will promote the cause of Christians to the exclusion of persecuted believers of other religions.

These dismissals are troubling. The centrality of religious freedom in the human rights tradition, along with its support from Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, Anglicans, Tibetan Buddhists and voices from a broad array of other faiths, refutes the charge that the issue is the narrow concern of a single lobby. Indeed, some fundamentalist Christian groups actually have eschewed involvement because the religious freedom legislation invokes un and international covenants.

The charge of special pleading is particularly puzzling. Would the same critics have considered human rights campaigns on behalf of South African blacks, Soviet Jews, East European dissidents, the Argentine "disappeared", the eradication of female circumcision or the banning of land mines to be special pleading? As Jacob Heilbrunn commented in The New Republic, "This seems a remarkable attitude for a human rights activist, since, by definition, all arguments on behalf of all persecuted groups-racial minorities, political minorities, ethnic minorities, etc.-are 'special pleadings' intended to help 'certain classes' of victims." Human rights campaigns on behalf of particular parties are the only kind of human rights campaigns there are. Concerns about special pleading certainly have not stopped Human Rights Watch, for example, from issuing special reports that advocate women's rights, children's rights, gay and lesbian rights, prisoners' rights, indigenous rights, journalists' rights and so on.

To be sure, the new legislation confers upon religious freedom a statutory significance that other specific rights may not enjoy. This special emphasis, however, is warranted by the corresponding priority the world's dictators place upon denying religious freedom. Moreover, human rights is not a zero-sum game in which the promotion of some rights involves the diminution of others. Rather than competing, different rights are mutually reinforcing. It is far from clear how the emphasis on religious freedom would diminish cries and protests on behalf of other kinds of human rights violations. Why cannot such pleas continue in full force?

Still, we cannot dismiss entirely concerns about narrow particularity. A fair policy would be one that supports the religious freedom of all believers, not just Christians. Fortunately, congressional legislation, and the first reports by the State Department and the Commission, have been inclusive in precisely this respect. True, earlier legislative findings and some congressional hearings weighted Christian minorities rather unevenly. But Muslim and Jewish lobbyists, along with some Catholic and Protestant leaders, worked to ensure that the final law applied scrupulously to all religious groups.

Another objection is that the policy will prove counterproductive, leading to reprisals against the very people that it is meant to support and little improvement in religious freedom. Critics of economic sanctions blame that blunt instrument for both kinds of failure. But the bill's drafters anticipated this concern, envisioning calibrated responses and recommending economic sanctions as a last resort. Generally, the policy ought to emphasize the tactic of exposure rather than punitive measures. State Department officials should publicize violations of religious freedom, and diplomats should convey to foreign governments the pressure they are receiving from the Commission and Congress to adopt more severe responses. Against only the worst violators ought presidents to take countermeasures; only rarely should these involve the withdrawal of non-humanitarian aid.

Instead of dramatic changes in the structures of foreign regimes, it is more realistic to expect incremental advances: one country loosening up restrictions on worship; another releasing some religious prisoners; another ceasing raids upon house churches. An encouraging example occurred in August of last year. Anticipating that the State Department's annual report might label it one of the "bottom ten" violators, the government of Uzbekistan freed its known Christian prisoners and substantially broadened its legalization of Christian churches. A few such achievements every year would be a noteworthy accomplishment. And as South Africa, Latin America, the Philippines and Eastern Europe have taught us, we have reason to believe that, cumulatively, these incremental victories may stimulate far more dramatic advances.

The Potential of the Cause

A foreign policy that promotes religious freedom promises a liberalization more profound than one that promotes cell phones, McDonald's and Nike. It would open up new spaces for human liberty and democratization. Its tools are practical, too, providing policymakers the flexibility to tailor their response to each violation, and to balance human rights with other foreign policy aims.

Also working in its favor, the cause of religious freedom boasts an advantage that other human rights groups cannot claim: a formidable domestic constituency. What other organization can mobilize an estimated 100,000 American churches to focus on its particular international concern? Already, the ranks of the religious freedom movement have fueled a growing campaign against the government of Sudan, which has employed man-made famine, slavery and forced conversions against its black Christian and animist population. Mounting concern in American churches over this catastrophe has sparked a student-based protest movement, disinvestment pressures on oil interests abetting the regime, and robust congressional activity, all reminiscent of the anti-apartheid campaign. After hearings and resolutions charged Sudan's government with committing deliberate genocide, Congress passed the Brownback Amendment allowing food aid to rebel areas, and it may pass further legislation aimed at ending Khartoum's use of food as a weapon and pressuring it to return to peace negotiations. In turn, the Commission presented a detailed set of recommendations designed to intensify pressure on the government of Sudan to improve human rights.

A maturing coalition anchors this new international advocacy, knitting together diverse faiths in a common cause. Especially noteworthy is the way the movement draws upon, and transforms, the grassroots energy of evangelicalism. Through the crucible of engagement, "parochial" concern for fellow believers has given way to broader human rights advocacy. Major evangelical leaders, for example, are joining with feminist groups to mobilize against the international sex trade, which swallows millions of women and children into grotesque forms of chattel slavery. In a sense, evangelical engagement is not only improving the prospects for human rights, but human rights engagement is improving evangelicalism by broadening its horizons. If secular human rights activists can look beyond their suspicions, they will find in churches the potential for allies in a coalition far larger than their cause has hitherto enjoyed.

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