U.S. Government Taking Action To Promote Religious Freedom

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During the holiday season, when many of us are exchanging presents and attending religious services, we sometimes take these things for granted. But in many countries, people are fired from their jobs, arrested by the authorities, sometimes even killed because of their faith.

For example, in China, government troops that have occupied the Chinese region of Tibet since 1959 have attempted to exterminate the Buddhist religion there. In Iran, where Islam is the official religion, converting to another religion is dangerous: three evangelical leaders were murdered in 1994, and last year another religious leader was found dead in a public park. Also in that nation, four adherents of the Baha'i faith were convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death two years ago.

Another example is Sudan, where the civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south has claimed some 1.5 million lives. As a part of this religious war, forced Islamization of Christians and animists has become official government policy. There are many more abhorrent examples that take place in countries such as Russia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Laos, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

When I last discussed this topic in my column, Congress was debating how to combat religious persecution around the globe. A year later, I can report that the United States has taken at least one step to address this problem.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 passed the Senate unanimously, and was signed into law by the president in October. This new law marks an important step in advocating religious freedom, and in curbing the threat of ill-treatment that hangs over people of faith. The new law will allow the U.S. government to actively investigate suppression of religious beliefs by foreign governments and send a message to those governments. It contains the following changes in U.S. policy:

  • Reporting: It will create an ambassador-at-large in the State Department and a bipartisan, 10-member commission, which will develop an Annual Report on Religious Persecution. The report will provide a review of religious freedom worldwide on a country-by-country basis.
  • Sanctions: The president must choose from a broad list of options ranging from diplomatic protest and a variety of economic sanctions. Based on the annual report, the President is required to announce to Congress the action he will take against the violators. The bill allows the President to waive action if an "important national interest" is threatened.
  • Training: The law will ensure there is training on religious persecution for all U.S. officials involved in adjudications, including refugee officers, asylum officers, and immigration judges. The training of consular officers in identifying victims of religious persecution will be a condition for receiving a consular commission.

Acts of religious persecution were documented in 77 countries last year. Our new law will give the U.S. government an array of foreign policy tools to deal with these countries to combat religious persecution and promote religious freedom.

The new law expresses something that goes back to our founding as a nation. It carries forth the spirit of George Washington, the "father" of our nation, who said: "The Government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

by U.S. Senator Jon Kyl
R-Arizona

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