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NEWS STORY: State Department names religious freedom advisory committee

c. 1996 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ The U.S. State Department Tuesday (Nov. 12) formally announced the formation of a special advisory committee to study religious persecution around the world and recommend U.S. foreign policy responses. The panel is comprised of 20 members from across the religious spectrum and is chaired by Assistant Secretary of […]

c. 1996 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The U.S. State Department Tuesday (Nov. 12) formally announced the formation of a special advisory committee to study religious persecution around the world and recommend U.S. foreign policy responses.

The panel is comprised of 20 members from across the religious spectrum and is chaired by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck. The committee will officially report to the U.S. Secretary of State.

At a State Department briefing Tuesday, Shattuck said the committee”demonstrates the State Department’s expanding outreach to the nongovernmental community and its recognition of the positive role religious communities can play in promoting human rights.” Shattuck added that the committee is part of the Clinton administration’s commitment to finding”new and creative means”to deal with human rights crises around the world. “Religious freedom is a right we hold sacred in America. It is a right we would look to see exercised in every corner of the globe,”Shattuck said.”The creation of the advisory committee is a step in that direction.” Among the panel members are Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE); the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC); the Rev. James Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Rabbi Irving Greenberg of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, leader of Al-Islam; Dr. Russell Marion Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and Archbishop Spyridon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Primary goals of the panel, according to Shattuck, are to foster dialogue between religious communities and the U.S. government; increase the flow of information about the persecution of religious minorities; and inform interested groups and individuals about U.S. efforts to address religious persecution. But he said the committee would set its own agenda.

State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said President Clinton”strongly supports”this initiative.”This administration has made a concerted effort to pay more attention to the issue of human rights and the formation of this committee is one more example of this,”he said.

For more than a year, Clinton administration officials have discussed the idea of an advisory panel with religious leaders and human rights activists.

In January, the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents some 15 million Christians in a variety of denominations, called on the U.S. government to take stronger measures on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world, including the appointment of a special presidential adviser for religious liberty. The NAE statement came amid a new effort by evangelicals and Catholics to raise awareness about the global plight of persecuted Christians.

However an administration official told RNS in September that the State Department believed a panel composed of a broad spectrum of religious leaders was”a better mechanism to address these policy concerns.” On October 11, 13 conservative evangelical and Catholic leaders wrote to Clinton expressing concerns that”so inherently unwieldly and far-flung a body”would be”unlikely to seriously address, much less investigate the issue.”The leaders also raised concerns about whether some of the proposed panel members might be”skeptical about the very efforts now being made to address the problems of persecuted Christians.” One of the signatories of the letter, Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, told RNS she remains concerned.”If this committee gives voice to members who have ideological commitments to denying the very problem of persecution of Christians, in the end, it will do more harm than good,”she said.

Committee member, Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Puebla Program on Religious Freedom, acknowledged that it”will be a challenge to work with people of diverse religious affiliations and interests”on this issue. However, she said she believes this challenge”can be met through breaking into smaller working groups with specific focuses.” Shea said she is personally committed to ensuring that the specific issue of persecution against Christians is addressed substantially in the committee meetings.

Campbell of the NCC voiced approval of the panel’s diversity.”It may take longer and the meetings may be more unruly, but in the long run it will result in solutions that reflect the pluralism of American thought,”she said.

The committee will have”open and public meetings”that will be posted in the Federal Register, Shattuck said.

The other committee members are Religion scholar Diana L. Eck of Harvard University; Baha’i leader Wilma M. Ellis; Bishop Frederick Calhoun James of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church of America; the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles of the Memorial Baptist Church of Memphis, Tenn.; Jewish scholar Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University; David Little of the U.S. Institute of Peace; Laila Al-Marayati of the Muslim Women’s League; Roman Catholic Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J.; Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M.; Barnett Richard Rubin of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Elliot Sperling of Indiana University.

MJP END LAWTON

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