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Religious Persecution Bill Attracts Converts, Repels Pragmatists

Measure has been softened, and Senate leaders vow it won't die. Yet many are troubled by its reliance on sanctions to quell assaults on freedom.


WASHINGTON — Senate leaders are promising action before Congress ends this fall on long-stalled legislation intended to combat religious persecution abroad. But this seemingly unassailable objective is giving new meaning to the congressional adage, "The devil is in the details."

Almost all sides in the emotional debate agree that thousands of people around the globe face starvation, murder, rape, kidnapping, imprisonment, forced conversion, slavery and other atrocities because of their religious beliefs.

In Congress and the White House--along with churches, synagogues and other houses of worship across the country--there is a growing consensus that the United States should do what it can to alleviate the plight of people suffering for their faith.

Yet there is almost no agreement on just what Washington can, or should, do about the problem. Proposals to impose economic sanctions have generated strong opposition from the business community and have drawn objections from the administration, which calls such sanctions a blunt instrument that can interfere with other foreign policy objectives. And there is little consensus about other steps that could be used to punish persecutors.

With the Cold War over and the world no longer divided into ideological camps led by the United States and the Soviet Union, religious liberty and its opposite, persecution, are emerging as a new global dichotomy: In one camp are those countries that allow their citizens to worship as they please; in the other are those that do not.

"The freedom to proclaim a religious identity and to practice [it] is an inalienable right of all people," White House National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger wrote recently. "When denied, it can sow generations of hatreds--hatreds later harvested in violence, unrest and war."

But Berger was arguing against a bill that would impose economic and political sanctions on nations implicated in religious persecution, either directly through government action or indirectly by allowing mobs to get away with atrocities against members of competing religions. Berger and other Clinton administration officials--backed by much of the business community and even some church groups--contended that the measure would actually make matters worse by provoking a backlash against the religious groups the bill is intended to protect.

The House approved the bill, 375 to 41, but the legislation has bogged down in the Senate. The House bill--with its heavy emphasis on economic sanctions--is thought to have no chance in the Senate, and a substitute sponsored by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) is stalled in the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) vows that he will not allow the committee to bury the legislation and says he intends to bring it up soon by employing a seldom-used procedure allowing the majority leader to bypass committees.

"Changes are being made to the bill to make it more acceptable to the business community," said a Lott spokesman.

But even with Lott's backing, passage is by no means certain.

The difficulty lawmakers are encountering in their effort to combat persecution is a microcosm of the confusion surrounding the issue in the country at large. Although evidence of religious persecution is overwhelming, it frequently has been overlooked by Americans, who enjoy religious freedom at home.

According to reports compiled by the State Department, religious groups and some secular human rights organizations, persecution is a growing scourge.

"Followers of all of the world's major religions--Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Bahais and others--are currently discriminated against, harassed, detained, tortured and killed," reported the State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Discrimination Abroad earlier this year.

Although the martyrs come in all faiths, Christians are the most frequent victims, according to numerous nongovernmental assessments. With 1.9 billion adherents, Christianity is the world's largest religion, so, statistically, it is the biggest target. Many Christians live as minorities in Third World countries where another religion is dominant.

Fundamentalist groups, led by the Christian Coalition, have mounted a campaign to overcome public apathy and sensitize Americans to the plight of Christian martyrs around the world. The effort initially was greeted by skepticism from liberal religious groups, secular human rights organizations, business associations and the administration.

The bill passed by the House closely tracked the coalition's objectives, focusing on persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Bahai. It targeted China, Vietnam, Sudan, Iran, Cuba, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, North Korea, Indonesia, Egypt and Laos for immediate attention by a newly created White House office of religious liberty.

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